Reruns of television series have long been an integral part of the television market. Even though reruns have taken on different forms over the past decades – from television re-broadcasts to DVD box sets to online platforms such as Netflix – the underlying principle of rewatching familiar television content has remained the same.
Of course, there are different modes of viewing reruns: sometimes we randomly catch an episode of a programme we have watched before while flipping through the channels; other times we specifically seek out a rerun of a show we like, be it on television, DVD or online, a practice Cristel Antonia Russell and Sidney J. Levy (2012) have termed “volitional reconsumption”. Even though Derek Kompare (2010) argues convincingly that the online version of a television episode is not technically a rerun (following a linear chronology) but instead a file (available at any time), for the purposes of this article I will consider the experience of reconsuming familiar television content as comparable across different media forms.
While rewatching a number of episodes of my (I admit it) all-time favourite television show, Friends (NBC, 1994-2004), I noticed something curious: my relationship to its characters has not changed since I first got hooked on the programme. Back then, I was just over twenty years old, whereas the six friends were five to seven years older, an age difference that seemed considerable at the time. Furthermore, this age gap increased rapidly because I had discovered the series with a six-year delay from the original US broadcast and – even in the early 2000s – was able to “binge watch” through the old seasons within a couple of months thanks to the video store next door. Then a university student, I found the lives of Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey fascinating: a preview (albeit fictional) into the post-university world of grown-ups with advancing careers, fancy apartments and, eventually, serious relationships.
Now, one and a half decades later, I am older than the six protagonists were on Friends (even though some of the actors were several years older than the roles they played). Yet, whenever I re-enter the sitcom’s universe, I still feel younger than the Friends characters. My parasocial relationship with them, including the perceived age difference, seems to be frozen in time.
To describe this phenomenon, I would like to borrow a term from How I Met Your Mother: in the episode “Sandcastles in the Sand” (3:16), Robin and Lilly, upon meeting a friend from their respective pasts, suddenly turn into an earlier version of themselves. HIMYM protagonist Ted offers the following explanation: “It’s actually a common thing. When you’re around someone from your past, you kind of revert back to who you were when you knew them. There’s not really a name for it, though”, to which Marshall replies: “It’s called revertigo”. Based on this idea, my experience when rewatching Friends could be described as viewer revertigo.
John Weispfennig makes a similar observation when he writes that “reruns serve to stop time, however artificially”, because they do not change, thereby “manipulating psychological time” (Weispfennig 2003, 173). Viewers can thus “recapture youth” for the duration of the familiar rerun which, according to Weispfennig, provides “a mechanism for coping with the high degree of sociological, technological, and economic disruption of the current era” (Weispfennig 2003, 173). While this may be one possible motive for viewing reruns, the question remains under what conditions viewer revertigo occurs.
In my case, only Friends triggers this psychological phenomenon. Other programmes I have a long viewing history with and enjoy rewatching, such as Seinfeld, which became one of my favourite comedies when I was in my late twenties, or ALF, my favourite childhood sitcom, do not send me into revertigo.
Maybe future research will look into the circumstances that help produce this effect in a viewer. Could the quality and intensity of the viewer’s parasocial relationship with a show’s characters play a role here? Is the age at which this relationship was built a decisive factor?
The psychosocial stability of the viewer at the time he or she first watched the programme might also be a subconscious motivation for reverting back to this specific period. These questions will not be answered easily, and we may never fully understand how the act of viewing reruns can manipulate psychological time.
Meanwhile, I will happily revertigo back to Central Perk.
Jamila Baluch holds a PhD in Television Studies from the University of Reading.
Kompare, Derek (2010). “Reruns 2.0: Revising Repetition for Multiplatform Television Distribution”. Journal of Popular Film and Television 38 (2), 79-83.
Russell, Cristel Antonia and Sidney J. Levy (2012). “The Temporal and Focal Dynamics of Volitional Reconsumption: A Phenomenological Investigation of Repeated Hedonic Experiences”. Journal of Consumer Research 39 (2), 341-359.
Weispfennig, John (2003). “Cultural Functions of Reruns: Time, Memory, and Television”. Journal of Communication 53 (1), 165–176.