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Newsletter: Essential California: ‘Game of Thrones’ finale, the end of ‘appointment TV’?

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Emilia Clarke in “Game of Thrones.”
(Helen Sloan / HBO)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, May 20, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Once upon a time, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and the internet required a dial-up connection (if it existed at all), all television was theoretically appointment TV.

We primitive humans had no other choice. Forget bingeing three episodes of “Fleabag” and then following it with a “Friends” chaser. We watched our shows at a set time every week, when they were on.

We’ve all but descended into TV-watching anarchy since then. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the weeks leading up to last night’s “Game of Thrones” finale, the chattering class has been busy sounding off on whether the end of the HBO show marks the end of appointment TV.

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Before we get any further, we should explain what exactly we mean when we say “appointment TV.” Appointment TV, by definition, is programming that people schedule their lives around, and make time to watch when it actually airs. But there’s a broader cultural meaning to the term beyond just synced scheduling.

Appointment TV is an event. It’s something that dominates the zeitgeist, and discussion at the real and proverbial water cooler. Think “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and “Scandal,” to name a few. Perhaps it’s a little like the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity: We know it when we see it.

“When I think of appointment TV, I think about the NBC Thursday night lineup when ‘Seinfeld’ was on, ‘Friends’ was on,” Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic and current Los Angeles Times columnist Mary McNamara said.

“If you were a hit show on network television back when, every week the world beat a path to your doorstep and you had tens of millions of people coming to watch,” Richard Rushfield, the author of widely read entertainment industry newsletter The Ankler, explained. “What’s now this sort of special, incredible phenomenon was routine for a number of shows all the time.”

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"Friends," starring (clockwise from top) Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow and David Schwimmer.
(Lance Staedler / Associated Press)

Back in 1997, the year Netflix was founded as a DVD-by-mail service, “Friends” and “Seinfeld” owned Thursday nights and we still knew our friends’ phone numbers by heart. The viewing habits and delivery mechanisms for how and what we watch have been drastically, almost unimaginably, rewritten since then.

And the commentariat has been sounding the death knell for appointment TV since at least 1999, when TiVo offered a mass-market solution for taking control of when you watched your shows, without the hassle of taping an individual episode on your VCR. DVRs have since become commonplace, and the death rattle has only grown louder as the traditional television market has been disrupted several times over by the internet, streaming services and cord-cutters.

But a decade or so into the new millennium, just as TV as we knew it should have been cratering, something crazy happened. Through a confluence of events — and really, really great shows — TV suddenly became the center of the creative universe in a way that it had rarely been before.

“I remember when Jonathan Gold said to me, ‘Nobody’s talking about food anymore. They’re all talking about television,’” McNamara recalled, placing the late food critic’s comment at roughly 2013.

The rise of social media and the second screens glued to our palms engineered a new kind of appointment TV, in which we could engage in live communal viewing even while alone on our respective couches. As individual shows like “Scandal” pioneered cast-led live Twitter engagement, synchronous show tweeting became a thing (and spawned a veritable hellscape of meme-ified potential spoilers for any viewer who hadn’t tuned in yet). Suddenly, live viewing started to feel like an event again.

But Peak TV has also been drowning us in content. We’ve never had more shows or ways to watch them, and audiences are increasingly fragmented into fiefdoms of niche fandom.

Current Los Angeles Times TV critic Lorraine Ali questioned whether “Game of Thrones” would be able to galvanize audiences in the same way if it started today. “It was a different landscape when it came on,” she said. “Would it be able to do it now? I don’t know. There are so many good shows out there that we miss, simply because there is so much.”

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Streaming services and the binge model have also fundamentally altered any idea of communal viewership.

“You can’t have appointment viewing on a streaming service because nobody knows when anybody is watching it, or how much they’re watching at any given time,” McNamara explained.

So, was last night’s “Games of Thrones” finale really the end of appointment TV for good?

“I don’t want to say it’s the end of appointment TV, because it’s the end of appointment TV — until there’s another show like this,” McNamara said.

“Anytime anybody calls time of death on anything, I’m like, yeah, give it 20 minutes. But I think we’re not going to see this happen again anytime soon,” McNamara continued.

[Read Lorraine Ali’s review of the finale: “Game of Thrones” ends more with an exhale than a bang]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

TOP STORIES

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Sen. Kamala Harris wants to toughen penalties on employers who underpay women. The Democratic presidential hopeful released a plan Monday to overhaul U.S. discrimination laws to ensure women and men are paid equally for the same work. Under her proposal, companies would be required to obtain a federal certification showing they are not underpaying women and those that fail to do so could be fined billions of dollars. Harris provided the broad outlines of the proposal Sunday at a rally of roughly 1,000 supporters at Southwest College in South L.A. Los Angeles Times

L.A. County’s juvenile halls are so chaotic, officers are afraid to come to work. Matt Stiles details the growing turmoil inside L.A. County’s juvenile detention operation, as county officials balance a number of crises. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. STORIES

LAUSD is drowning in debt, but officials for the nation’s second-largest school district are hopeful that Measure EE — a 16-cent-per-square-foot parcel tax on the June 4 ballot — could help. Los Angeles Daily News

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"Airplane Parts," a sculpture by Nancy Rubins made of scraps of old airplanes wired together into a massive junk tree, greets visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles.
(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art will now be free, thanks to a $10-million gift. MOCA Board of Trustees President Carolyn Powers’ donation will cover the cost of a free admission policy for the next five years. Los Angeles Times

Democrats dominate the L.A. City Council, but this San Fernando Valley seat has been held by Republicans for decades. Could that change? Los Angeles Times

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IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER

ICE is looking across California for locations for potential new detention centers to house more than 5,000 people. San Francisco Chronicle

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Most of this year’s legislative tax proposals died last week in a culling of bills at the state Capitol, but a few remain. Here’s what’s left. Sacramento Bee

California’s prison parole rules might hinge on a quiet fight over ballot measures. A 2016 ballot measure offered thousands of prisoners new opportunities for parole and served as the centerpiece of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s legacy on criminal justice. Now, a new high-stakes lawsuit seeks to block a 2020 ballot measure that would redo Brown’s parole changes. Los Angeles Times

A brawl erupted at a convention for local government officials at an Indian Wells resort. Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

San Francisco Mayor London Breed is shifting her stance on the raid of a freelance journalist’s home, or at least slightly shifting it. She still believes the search was “legal and warranted,” but said, “I am not OK with police raids on reporters.” KQED

John Walker Lindh, the Marin County man dubbed “American Taliban” and convicted of fighting alongside the Taliban in 2002, will be released from an Indiana prison next week. San Francisco Chronicle

This Calabasas company sells prison tips to the well-heeled and recently convicted. And business at White Collar Advice is booming. Los Angeles Magazine

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

As ER wait times at California hospitals grow, more patients are leaving against medical advice. California Healthline

Nanny state or progressive politics? In “Ban Francisco,” the debate rages on. San Francisco Chronicle

Follow in Jack London’s literary footsteps on this self-guided tour of the “Call of the Wild” writer’s old haunts around the Bay Area. East Bay Times

A bizarre “magic” echo chamber in a San Francisco BART station has been discovered, to the delight and bewilderment of passengers. San Francisco Chronicle

Runners, many in elaborate costumes, braved rainy weather for the annual Bay to Breakers race. SF Gate

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 67. San Diego: partly sunny, 65. San Francisco: sunny 60. San Jose: partly sunny, 66. Sacramento: partly sunny, 70. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

This week’s birthdays for those who made a mark in California: actor Mr. T (May 21, 1952), former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin (May 24, 1972), former L.A. City Councilman Felipe Fuentes (May 25, 1971).

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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