Everyone’s a critic: The rise of the TV hate-watch

It’s Wednesday night, 10:00 p.m. In her suburban Detroit living room, MontiLee Stormer is sitting down in front of the TV, her husband at her side and her laptop logged into Facebook. In Bethel, PA, Pamela V. Jones is doing the same. They are both tuned in to CBS’s CSI: Cyber – but not because they enjoy the show.

Quite the contrary.

As the show begins with the narrated backstory that introduces every episode, Jones starts a thread on her Facebook page.

“LOL ‘It can happen to you,’” she writes, echoing the fear-mongering last line of the show’s intro, which is delivered in a whisper by actress Patricia Arquette.

“They really gotta change that opening,” writes Stormer’s husband.

“Why? It sucks like the rest of the show,” replies Jones.

Thus begins the hate-watch.

Every week, thousands of people tune in to watch television programs they genuinely despise, purely to poke fun at the awfulness with like-minded viewers on social media. Some, like Stormer and Jones, hate-watch via Facebook, among their circle of friends. Others take to Twitter to broadcast their snark in a more public forum using the hashtag “#hatewatch”. Why do they do it?

Stormer and Jones didn’t set out to hate CSI: Cyber; they went in expecting to enjoy it. “I was excited by the prospect,” Stormer says, “because I have liked the CSI franchise – okay, maybe not Miami – and I like Patricia Arquette. But the pilot was such a let down.”

Jones agrees: “We so wanted to like it. And it failed on the first episode.”

“I had a snark thread the second episode,” says Stormer. Ever since then, either Jones or Stormer has hosted the weekly hate-watch thread, joined by their friends, many of whom admit they are only watching the show because the hate-watch comments are so entertaining.

But why, when the television landscape is populated with countless high-quality, critically and popularly acclaimed programs, would sensible people spend precious time watching utter dreck? Could it be that we, as humans, have a psychological compulsion to engage in collective ridicule, and the hate-watch fulfills that need in a socially acceptable forum? It turns out, yes.

Matt Feinberg, Assistant Professor of Organized Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management explains: “I think you could classify what these hate-watchers are doing as a form of gossip. One hypothesis we have is that people will have a propensity to gossip about those whom they view as being in a position of illegitimate status or power.” When a television program is sub-par, viewers may see the production team’s status as unearned, thus provoking the urge to gossip about it.

But Feinberg believes two other processes may be driving the practice of hate-watching even more. “The first is that stereotyping and derogating others can build up our own self-esteem. The second is that feeling a part of a united group feels good,” he says, and “by coming together to derogate the outgroup, these individuals are forming a positive ingroup identity, which translates into them feeling good about themselves.”

But wouldn’t we normally call “stereotyping and derogating” a form of bullying? Because her hate-watching takes place entirely on her Facebook page, Jones doesn’t think that term applies to what she’s doing. “I only think it would be bullying if we tagged them, or posted to the people doing the show – which I wouldn’t, because that would be impolite.”

But what about those who do post their hate-watch comments on Twitter, specifically tagging those involved in the target show? Ted Sullivan, a writer on ABC’s Revenge, knows all too well what it feels like to be on the receiving end of hate-watchers’ snark.

“To be honest, I’m pretty certain that a huge portion of Revenge’s audience were hate-watchers,” says Sullivan. “I’ve done live Tweets with the fans, and I’ll tell you, for every one person that loves what I do, there are ten who hate me. I mean haaaaaate me. And they attack me – and the show – mercilessly.

“For a while, that kind of bugged me. When people would find out I write for Revenge, they’d inevitably say, ‘Oh, that’s my guilty pleasure!’ They don’t realize how insulting this statement is. It’d be like telling a chef, ‘Oh my god, I love your food when I’m wasted and can’t find a Taco Bell.’”

Although he eventually resigned himself to the inevitability of Revenge hate-watching, Sullivan bristles at some of the more callous comments directed at the actresses on the show. “Karine Vanasse is a wonderful woman and a close personal friend of mine. I hate that she would call me at 2:00 a.m. crying after spending hours reading vile things people were saying about her as a person because of what I had her make-believe character do in a script.”

When hate-watchers avoid personal attacks, however, Sullivan can see a silver lining to the practice: “Even when they hate-watch and make fun of it, it’s okay. They’re still watching. The worst thing would be for them to ignore it. That’s no fun.”

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