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Latest ‘Mad Men’ episode reads the tea leaves for current broadcast landscape

Updated: May 13, 2013 7:33PM

Even when a TV character is watching TV, you want to make sure the details are just right.

On a recent episode of “Mad Men,” Peggy pressed the “off” button on small, relatively inexpensive-looking television set.

This being 1968, it took a moment for the picture to go blank. First there was a horizontal stripe, which compressed into a white dot in the middle of the screen before disappearing.

We glean small insights into the personalities of various characters on “Mad Men” even from the manner in which they watch TV, whether they’re watching the news reports of riots after Martin Luther King was assassinated or trying to get a signal so they can watch a rerun of a sitcom.

More upscale characters on “Mad Men” have a different TV viewing experience. Don Draper’s posh apartment is outfitted with a state-of-the-art color set, complete with remote control. Fancy.

With the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy, the nationwide protests against the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, LBJ declaring he wouldn’t run for re-election and so much more going on, 1968 was arguably the most tumultuous year for the United States in the last half of the 20th century.

Pop culture was reflecting — and influencing — the times. In the very early 1960s, Connie Francis and Bing Crosby and Neil Sedaka and Henry Mancini (and yes, Elvis) were still topping the charts. A few short years later, it was all about the Beatles and the Stones and the Doors. At the movies, the sweeping epics, traditional dramas and old-fashioned musicals of the early 1960s didn’t suddenly disappear at the end of the decade, but films such as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Easy Rider” were changing the face of American cinema.

Consumed as they are with selling Chevys and baked beans and women’s underthings, the advertising execs (and their significant others) in “Mad Men” hardly are unaware of the world outside their floor-to-ceiling windows. Don Draper still favors a look like the lead in a Hitchcock thriller circa 1960, but some of his younger male colleagues have taken to wearing the garish clothes of the time while growing out their hair and sporting beards, and some of the women have gone for a modified flower child look. And there’s nearly as much dope-smoking as bourbon-guzzling going on.

They talk about the assassinations, the upcoming presidential election, and the changing nature of race relations. They know there’s a raging new world out there, and they’re trying to keep up with it — trying to calculate how the consumer can be influenced, whether she’s picking up a magazine at the beauty parlor, listening to the radio in her Mustang or watching her “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” or “Family Affair” at night.

After all, it’s a captive audience. Sure, you can get up and change channels when a commercial comes on, but who does that? Most people just sit back and let the ads wash over them, waiting for their show to resume.

One doubts Draper and his colleagues ever considered that wouldn’t always be the way.

How we watch
what we watch

On Tuesday, ABC will announce the advent of a button on its iPhone and iPad app that will give New York and Philadelphia users the option of live-streaming all programming from the ABC affiliates in those markets.

It’s likely the “live” button will be available to everyone sooner rather than later, giving viewers the option to live-stream all the programming on their local ABC stations.

The catch? You can’t get the live stream unless you’re a cable or satellite subscriber.

And so it goes in the modern era of multi-platform, multi-media viewing. Whether you’re watching TV or movies in real time, via TiVo or DVR, through Hulu, live-stream, Netflix or some other option, content providers are scrambling to figure out ways to monetize the product.

“Mad Men,” the show about the men and women who sold ads in the 1960s, is in its sixth season. I’ve seen every episode — but I’ve never watched a single moment of the show on “regular” TV, as it was running for the first time, complete with commercial breaks.

Never mind the hallucinogenic drugs, the hippie music and the changing times. Watching TV without ever watching TV? That really would have been a mind-blowing experience for Don Draper and Roger Sterling.

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