Sometimes when I’m watching TV, I’m also scrolling TikTok. That is, my television is playing a show I’ve personally selected while I’m ensconced on the couch, phone in hand, somehow looking at two screens at once. Then again, sometimes when I’m scrolling TikTok, I’m also watching TV. That is, I’m looking at one screen (my phone) and watching a TV show on TikTok. It’s confusing. It also might just be the future of TV.
Since TikTok first launched in China in 2016, the mega-app has become inseparable from Gen Z and, in some ways, internet culture as a whole. It’s of little wonder this fervor would spill over into the realm of TV, the perhaps prime American cultural force of the last half dozen decades. TikTok stars appear as featured guests on late night, staple programs like Saturday Night Live have mimicked and parodied the experience of using the app, and just about any marketing executive in Tinsel Town will tell you that getting clips to go viral on the app might just be the only way to capture that elusive 18 to 35 demographic. At the same time, TV is appearing more and more on TikTok, in ways both contrived and surprisingly organic.
When I first (reluctantly) downloaded TikTok, it took longer than expected for the algorithm to suss out my viewing habits. Videos of teenagers dancing and cute babies being cute kept appearing no matter how hard I smashed that “Not Interested” button. But soon enough, the styles and themes I had directed my searches toward had informed the TikTok gods of what I liked: campy humor, culinary prowess, queer politics, world history, dogs befriending cats. All of which was a smorgasbord of original content made specifically for the app. Nothing too unexpected there.
Then, it started showing me videos that, at first, I didn’t even question because it felt like such a natural progression. My “For You” page became interspersed with clips from some of my favorite TV shows, ones I had never searched for on the app nor indicated I’d watched before. Memorable jokes or high-drama moments from primetime juggernauts like Euphoria, Veep, and Twin Peaks found their requisite way onto my feed. Still, even my more “niche” favorites made the cut, including HBO’s Somebody Somewhere and the criminally under-seen Australian comedy Please Like Me. Somehow the algorithm knew the types of shows I watched years ago—long before it was even invented. And if the algorithm was feeding me clip after clip of TV shows that I love (even if they are in bite-sized increments), what’s the difference between watching them on TikTok compared to Netflix or Hulu or CBS, all of which I can also do on my phone?
But it’s not the algorithm that puts these clips on the app. As opposed to network marketing teams that post teasers and sneak peeks on social media for promotional reasons, many of the clips on my For You page are posted by fans themselves for the sole purpose of… well, they like them. Users such as @desperatem0rge have amassed hundreds of thousands of views on classic The Simpsons clips, while Ben Finer’s post of a great 30 Rock joke stirred the members of his comments section to profess their adoration for the NBC series. It’s not just that the app functions as an ancillary, user-generated streaming channel for TV, one devoted to reruns, highlight reels, or clip shows. TikTok also provides a platform for engaging in the discourse around these shows, even ones that have lied dormant for years. In a sense, the TikTok comments section has taken on the old-school role of “water cooler” talk.
In a media age populated by more TV shows than ever and a workplace culture that has become more computerized than ever, few water cooler discussions occur in person anymore. Even when I worked in a corporate office pre-pandemic, conversations about TV naturally arose, but there was rarely overlap in the shows my coworkers and I would be watching (it was hard to get a word in about the Fleabag finale when everyone was still shocked the latest Masked Singer was Sarah Palin). Because of the staggering breadth of content on TikTok, it’s not hard to find fandoms devoted to your favorite shows, no matter how sui generis, and comments sections filled with users deliberating on this plot hole or that character arc.
What’s remarkable about this phenomenon is that conversations around users’ favorite TV shows don’t remain relegated to the morning after they air. Shows that have long ended find their audiences on the app, indicating that TikTok might arise as something else: a de facto archival project. As Warner Bros. Discovery has recently begun slashing titles from HBO Max’s library for tax break reasons, anxiety over the disappearance of shows from streaming has skyrocketed. What we were once promised of streaming’s infinite capacity to house any TV show we desired at the click of a button might be deteriorating before our very eyes, and while those prescient enough to snag the boxed physical media sets of M.A.S.H. or Lost are sitting pretty, the rest of us are left just as stranded as the characters of the latter.
For now, TikTok could be a space in which not only the conversations around TV shows could endure but the ability to watch them at all could hinge on the users dedicated to uploading their clips. Admittedly, this is all speculative, and TikTok’s memory space may be just as fragile as the streamers in the end. But as the world’s most downloaded app continues to evolve, who’s to say its modus operandi of letting users upload and share their own videos might not expand to incorporate the proliferation and protection of other visual content?
TikTok’s rise in global cultural significance has arrived at the same time in which the walls that once firmly contained the definition of what television as a medium is have never stood shorter. Once-defining distinctions between TV and film, such as strict runtimes and episode counts, have gone out the window, as with Stranger Things’s two-and-a-half hour slog of a Season 4 finale and Sight and Sound listing of the 18 episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return as the 146th greatest film of all time both demonstrated. But the boom of social media in the twenty-first century, and TikTok in particular the last several years, are also changing the way we both watch TV and conceptualize it.
TV shows premiere and stream on websites. They can be watched on your telephone, your computer, or your watch. And, as opposed to having to break into the insular economic system of Hollywood, anyone with the TikTok app downloaded on their phones can make videos, discover an enthusiastic audience, and strike big as a result. Perhaps the only tangible differences between a Netflix offering and the episodic fever dream visions of @savanahmosss or delightfully absurdist @sylviandrama series may be their lengths and budgets. Otherwise, their entertainment value per volume of content may even surpass that of some of Netflix’s most pointless offerings (here’s looking at you, Emily In Paris).
Even though YouTube, Snapchat, and Quibi have all dipped their toes in the concomitance of TV and social media (to varying results), TikTok’s success in granting its users a platform to share their televisual art derives from its foundations as a video-sharing app. TikTok is firstly convenient; it’s on our phones and thus, essentially, on our person at all times. It also dishes out comfort fodder—whether by introducing its users to inventive, bite-sized videos made specifically for the app or by reintroducing them to familiar scenes from their favorite TV shows—in a way that engages its users without ever coming across as manipulating them. Users themselves want to create and share their own videos as much as they want to watch others’, so consuming short-form content from “real” people is invigorating, while sitting down on the couch and watching a beloved full-length TV show is balming. Consuming familiar clips and TV scenes uploaded by fans for fans on TikTok results in the perfect marriage between those invigorating and balming feelings.
TV and how we watch it has always been in a state of constant transformation, with new technological advances and cultural norms disrupting the form and its practice since its rise in the 1940s. TikTok—perhaps accidentally, perhaps inevitably—might just emerge as the next stage of TV’s evolution, acting as a space where people across the globe can not only watch on-air and off-air shows but build communities around them, preserve the media itself, and share their own televisual content with the broader world. It might not be the platform we deserve, but it is the one we need right now. All we can do now is sit back, kick our feet up, grab some popcorn, and scroll.
Michael Savio is an editorial intern at Paste Magazine based in New York. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at NYU in media and humor studies.
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