I’m working on a little theory about why we watch television, or rather what we watch what we watch.

This comes from two observations – firstly the popularity of soaps, which I completely fail to grasp, and secondly the shows that my 5-year old likes to watch.

I should add that I’m excluding programmes that are principally about disseminating information, such as the news, or documentaries. In other words, we’re talking about entertainment! I might need to exclude ‘direct’ comedy too.

Here’s my theory; we enjoy watching shows that we (secretly) wish we were in. It’s like a whole vicarious living thing.

So the programmes I like:

  • Doctor Who – who wouldn’t want to be a Time Lord (or at least his assistant)?
  • Top Gear – I’d love to be driving fast cars round a race track!
  • QI, Have I Got News For You – yup, would love to be a panellist (or, at least, clever enough to be a panellist).
  • Star Trek – again, how cool to be on the Enterprise?
  • Northern Exposure – this probably falls into the comedy bracket, but there is a part of me that would love to live in the wilds of Alaska. Just stunning.
  • Friends – again, we all want to be living in that situation.
  • Midsomer Murders, Sherlock Homles, Poirot – the whole point of detective shows is trying to solve the case before the chief protagonist.
  • 24, Lost – harder call. I was hooked for one episode, which I think was novelty, but subsequently lost interest.
  • Bond – not TV I know, but probably the strongest example. Every man wants to be 007.

If we move on to my boy – he loves various programmes, but he strongly associates with the characters on the screen. To the extent he will lean sideways watching them. He will also go away and ‘play’ that character, or games based on the TV show.

The best example of this was Escape From Scorpion Island (sort of Survivor for 11 year olds) – when the series was over, his question was When can I go onto Scorpion Island, and do all those things?.

I’m obviously on dodgy ground when I start extrapolating to shows I don’t like – but I wonder if the same applies to soaps? That somehow the community being portrayed, however dysfunctional, is desirable? I guess society today is so fragmented that geographical communities like Albert Square or Corrie simply don’t exist anymore.

On the comedy note, I wonder if it applies backwards. Take The Office – it takes a situation we are in (or can closely related to), and twists it into something we wouldn’t want to be in. Maybe it’s actually all down to emotional response, be that happiness, sadness, fear, laughter, tears, outrage, disgust?