Playing All, Or Not, As The Case May Be: DVD Boxsets, Irrational Rage, and the "Play All" Function

I did not have a good birthday. The lurghy got me, and it got me bad. I started to refer to myself as "The Plague Ship". I wore the same comfort kaftan for a disturbingly long time. And I had a shawl perma-swaddled around me to stave off assorted noxious "draughts". This was not a drill. This was action stations for comfort and cheer. So I did what anyone would do in such a situation: I ordered myself over a metre of audio-visual content on Black Friday. Yep, I measured the fruits of my feverish, and clearly productive, stabs at the Amazon webpage not in terms of total cost -- alarmingly cheap! thanks neo-liberal capitalism! -- but in the total length of DVD Boxsets I had procured, when laying them side by side. It was glorious. So. Much. To. Watch. I could sit down, and just "play all" to my heart's content, or so I thought. 

Bear with me, this context is important. Because it turns out that I have basically seen All Of The Televisual Things, I ended up buying stuff that was a bit older than my usual fare or a bit left of centre to my usual viewing tastes. Some of it I'd watched at least partially in its original run: Frasier (1993-2004); Murder One (1995-1997); Ally McBeal (1997-2002). Others looked gung-ho silly enough (JAG, 1995-2005), whimsical enough (Northern Exposure, 1990-1995), or were eminently consumable procedurals to have on in the background whilst actually attending to the business of life (NCIS, 2003-present).  First, some viewer notes:

Niles Crane, applauding like a pro: it's all about the mixture of contempt, envy, and judgement. (Frasier)

Niles Crane, applauding like a pro: it's all about the mixture of contempt, envy, and judgement. (Frasier)

  • Frasier - clearly inaccurately titled. Should obviously be called Niles, who is the best thing ever. Yes, I am glazing over consciously how deeply creepy his "love" for Daphne is for many seasons before they hook up. Also, deep dislike for Daphne's terrible fatty storyline. Props for showing that older people have relationships - and sex! - too. My hat is off to Martin, I would have thrown myself off the balcony instead of living with odious Frasier. 
  • Murder One - I remember watching snatches of this whilst pretending to sleep when my Mum was watching it. It seemed Very Serious and Dramatic. It is deliciously 90s, and pretty solid (at least season 1). Picture boxy suits and hair scrunchies. 
Ling Woo being, well, Ling Woo. (Ally McBeal)

Ling Woo being, well, Ling Woo. (Ally McBeal)

  • Ally McBeal - this was iconic in my youth. One girl I knew at school changed the way she parted her hair to look more like Ally. This was a big decision and life choice at the time. Do not return to things that were iconic in your youth if they are called Ally McBeal. Ye gods. Apart from Lucy Liu as Ling, who gets a pass as she is clearly amazing.
  • JAG - created explicitly as a mash-up of Top Gun and A Few Good Men, so obviously rife with homoerotic possibilities. Dripping with Rah Rah Americah! sentiment, and embedded in a framework created by the Cold War and first Gulf War, it is camp as all get out. Like Navy MacGyver.  Completely throw-away, but fine. 
  • NCIS (box-set of seasons 1-5 only) - spin-off of JAG. I hate every character. Every single one. Mostly because I think they are all completely two-dimensional, e.g. Gibbs (stone); DiNozzo (misogynist pig); Ducky (English); Abby (imprisoned in a lab for crimes against goth); McGee (milquetoast). Do not get me started on Todd. Todd is played by Sasha Alexander. Why is Maura Isles lowering herself to consort with these Navy nobodies??? Where is Rizzoli??? What is happening??
  • Northern Exposure - my sister had the soundtrack back in the day. It's set in Alaska. I have watched all of Ice Road Truckers, so I have already bought into the snow-drama concept. However, I have as yet only seen two episodes of Northern Exposure, as the "plot" is thus far so slow moving that I always fall asleep. Needs more trucks and logistical crises?

Clearly I had a lot of #feelings about all these shows, and a lot of varied #feelings at that. But one thing united them all: their DVD format inspired a bone-deep excoriating irritation in me. Why? None possessed a "play all" episodes feature. Whilst I've obviously still got some way to go to work through my rage productively, I'm far enough past my flaming zenith to notice the wider signification of that. In a weird way, these boxsets - and the flaws I perceive in their feature set-ups - offer an implicit, capsule history of both technological development and the evolution in audience preferences and spectatorship styles.

A VHS cassette, with internal magnetic tape unfurled: "Projet 365 - 054/365. Old tape" - Nicolas Buffler. Via Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0

A VHS cassette, with internal magnetic tape unfurled: "Projet 365 - 054/365. Old tape" - Nicolas Buffler. Via Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0

I grew up with the VHS format, a now obsolete format using cassettes of magnetic tape for storing films and taping stuff of the TV. It took forever to interact with the cassette itself - make it fast forward, or rewind, say. And "rewind" was literal - the tape had to be physically re-spooled by your VHS machine to get it back to a desired point. This was a pain. So much so that the now-defunct video rental chain Blockbuster emblazoned their cassettes with the phrase "Be kind rewind". This maxim urged renters to do the annoying work of hitting "rewind" on their machines before returning the tape to the store. Otherwise, store-workers or new renters would have to do it themselves, because the tape did not automatically start at the beginning whenever you put it into the machine. 

"Blockbuster Video" - Thomas Hawk. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-NC 2.0

"Blockbuster Video" - Thomas Hawk. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-NC 2.0

It caused a kind of splinter-like annoyance, an obviously first-world problem that nevertheless highlights some of the frustrations associated with the VHS format. You excitedly rent a new VHS from Blockbuster, sit down to watch it, and press play - only to find that the last viewers left it right at the end, so the credits are scrolling, and it'll take you (what feels like) an inordinate amount of time to rewind the damn thing to the start of the movie. Or the last guys wanted to re-watch a pivotal scene, so when you hit play you're stuck half-way through the film, spoilers a-go-go. The lumbering VHS format meant that the technology itself predisposed you to "play all" - to let the cassette do it's thing, rather than flip between sections of a film or TV show. 

"DVD" - papanooms. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

"DVD" - papanooms. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Then comes DVDs in the late 1990s, wheeeee! These shiny little discs are amazing, not just because they're so much smaller than VHS cassettes. Interacting with the film - fast-forwarding or (now non-literal) rewinding - is so much easier. And you don't even have to "rewind" a DVD when you finish the movie: it just automatically re-starts at the beginning. Film "chapters" are introduced too, which splits up the film into easily-navigable chunks of narrative action. Now, viewers no longer have to "play all" - put up with a clunky viewing mode or deal with the hassles of trying to make VHS do what you want. Instead, the DVD format offers more spectatorial power, as viewers can flit about the DVD content as much as they'd like. This is a positive thing, right? Absolutely for film viewing. And the ability for viewers to easily select different units of content - episodes - meant DVDs seemed extraordinarily suited to distributing TV shows, given DVDs could hold multiple episodes of a given series. And perhaps that was indeed true for a while, and still is for a few people. But the potential of the DVD format provoked a new kind of engagement with TV: binge-watching. (The eagle-eyed amongst you will already have cottoned on to the fact that my preponderous usage of gifs - endlessly looping video clips - to illustrate this post is a conscious decision to reflect the binge-watching format and experience. Also, I <3 gifs.)

Nehahalol Animated GIF. Dimensions: 640x640. Size: 553KB. Frames: 61

Nehahalol Animated GIF. Dimensions: 640x640. Size: 553KB. Frames: 61

Dafydd Wood summarises the impact of the introduction of the DVD format:

This technological development literally changed the way we watch television, weakening the importance of airing in a particular spot on a particular day. The DVD could contain multiple episodes and could be set to play all episodes in quick succession. This facilitated a radical change in the consumption of television, the most significant development in the history of the medium. Viewers could now sit down and consume a vast amount of a show over an extended period and on their own terms not according to real-time scheduling. The emergence of streaming services which could make multiple seasons of a series available instantaneously only solidified marathon viewing as a common cultural experience: Netflix and Hulu now release entire seasons of their own programming at the same time. ('Flies', p. 13)

Playing episodes sequentially by navigating through DVD menus introduces the viewer to the delights of binge-watching, creating a new kind of independent - and hungry - TV audience. With the introduction of the slick "play all" feature, binge-watching becomes de rigueur, normalised further by the DVD feature-set itself. The "play all" feature delivers on the smooth effortless binge-watching experience with which earlier DVDs tantalised the audience. The latter were stuffed with TV episodes, but provided only a staccato spectatorial experience, punctuated by viewer navigation through DVD menu hierarchies.  

Vidme Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270 Size: 2198KB. Frames: 84.

Vidme Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270
Size: 2198KB. Frames: 84.

There's a certain nostalgia for the dear, departed VHS format here, and a shadow of the pre-digital TV broadcast landscape too. One of the chief characteristics of the VHS is its rigidity, a compulsion to linearity: you put the tape in the machine, press play, and let it play itself out. With early TV, you had a very limited array of channels, from which you got served whatever they wanted to serve you, at whatever time the TV execs decided. An analogous experience is offered by the DVD "play all" - you make the initial selection of a given TV series or specific DVD, and "playing all" lets you slip back under the comfortable blanket of spectatorial passivity. It's just better than before: now you get to choose from a far wider array of audiovisual content the stuff that gets served at your eyeballs seemingly "outside of your control".  

In a thread on the online DVDTalk forum devoted to a discussion of the "play all" function, and why it's not present on all DVDs, one user, "120inna55", comments: 

I admit that I love the 'play all' function. I like to go to sleep to TV shows on DVD. (i.e. Simpsons, Seinfeld, Family Guy, even episodes of Homicide that I've seen several times before). Be it a good habit or not, I grew up with a televison playing constantly in my bedroom, even while I was sleeping. When VHS came along, I had tapes crammed with 6-8 hrs of favorite movies and television shows to which I could go to sleep. There was (is) something comforting about waking in the middle of the night to a familiar televison show. The 'play all' function is a must for such practice. [...]

The DVD "play all" feature is cast here not as as facilitating a decisive break from past viewing habits, as media chatter about the binge-watching "shift" - or Wood's "radical shift" quoted above - would suggest. Instead, the "play all" innovation acts as a means by which the viewer re-positions herself in the soothing embrace of a consciously passive viewing position, otherwise disrupted by choppy DVD menus.  

The first DVD TV boxsets were released in 2000, with the release of the first series of popular shows The X-Files, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City. 120inna55's comment quoted above was posted in 2005 (14/03/05 to be precise), shortly after the thread itself was started. In other words, DVD producers had not yet cottoned on to the ongoing shift in audience viewing habits. It had not yet become utterly standard for TV boxsets to have a "play all" feature. And what we witness in the DVDTalk forum is viewers negotiating the mismatch of audience expectation with DVD function. This is precisely what I am experiencing when I shake my fist in impotent and irrational anger at the foreclosed option of "playing all" which all these DVD boxsets deny me.

Ana Pérez López Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270. Size: 2398KB. Frames: 219

Ana Pérez López Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270. Size: 2398KB. Frames: 219

Given that the series themselves are of older pedigree, from the 1990s to early 2000s, then it makes sense that the boxsets were produced according to the expectations that initially governed DVD production. My inchoate grah at the DVD's set up lies in the collision of one spectatorial paradigm with another, how the DVD says I should watch and how I want to watch. Producers and distributors certainly do re-release DVDs, after adding extra special features including the trusty "play all" button (see e.g.) But re-releasing the shows which I purchased would likely be a waste of money. They're notable, but not cult, and so have relatively poor marketability. They're historically popular too, with the emphasis on historical:  popular with people who likely are less rankled by the lack of "play all" as they're more used to pre-streaming and pre-binging consumption forms. Really, they might even prefer the single-serve option. I'm so entrenched in my devotion to "play all" I cannot fathom that, but I write in good faith and with an open mind.  

The initial DVDTalk thread peters out after only two days of light posting (13-14/03/05). Somewhat bizarrely, it is then revived in 2011 by user "Judgeraye" (04/06/11):

GIPHY Studios Originals Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x480. Size: 2129KB. Frames: 32

GIPHY Studios Originals Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x480. Size: 2129KB. Frames: 32

Ive wanted to know who the morons are that decide this for years. why in H--L
can't the buffoons who churn out theses things (DVD's) understand that like a poster earlier said, sometimes you want to lull yourself to sleep watching a few eps of TV shows you like. WHO is the person that has that say so and WHY when they are asked would they say "No" to a Play All feature on a disc with 6 or so episodes on it? it makes no sense. Does it cost more? how could it? it seems like a programming thing. I recently bought "Car 54 where are you?" season one on DVD. it was a 4 disc set of a tv show from 1961 about two cops in NY. mellow stuff and very funny and fun to watch. The company that produced the DVD was named Shlenechtidy or Shanastedy or some such odd name and they were very proud to bring us the set complete with special features. when i put the disc in it showed a menu of 7 episodes listed with a button next to each one but NO Play All Feature. I was P-ssed Off. i was gonna write a letter to em when i noticed that after the first episode ended, it went right in to the next show. There was an invisible "Play All" button i guess but thats the way it should be standard

How comforting it can be to find you're probably not the least rational person on the internet, eh? And frankly, though it might seem like it, I don't think I'm tilting at "play all" windmills, at least not entirely. If I hadn't been blazingly annoyed, then I probably wouldn't be thinking as much about DVD features and prompts to spectatorial consumption. It's interesting to me that this issue so bedevils me, beyond all reasonable proportion. Paying close attention to the grah lets me look more closely, more curiously about how and why I watch in the way that I watch. In short, I get to consider the conditions of my media consumption. And I get to commune with earlier incarnations of myself as a spectator - see how I too have evolved as a viewer. God I loved Blockbuster. God, what I wouldn't have given to have access to the variety of TV and film that I do now. Like "120inna55", I too had a few much beloved VHS mixtapes, filled with as many favourite TV shows or reassuringly trashy TV movies the cassette could physically hold. I still do have them actually, in a memory box somewhere. Why would I ever get rid of such dear friends? We live in the "Golden Age" of TV. I can watch it all, back to back, again and again. I can watch it on my phone, tablet, smartphone, TV, home projector screen. I never need to rewind the tape. "Play all" problems aside, ain't televisual life grand?

 

Hardcopy references:

Wood, Dafydd, ‘Flies and One-eyed Bears: The Maturation of a Genre’, in The Methods of Breaking Bad: Essays on Narrative, Character and Ethics, ed. by Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), pp. 11-25 (Google books)