America’s preferred streaming service has mutated into an all-consuming, overpowering, and overwhelming leviathan of lethargy, and its thirst for your eyeballs will never be quenched. No matter where or when you are, it’s there, watching and stalking you like Michael Myers behind a hedge row. Except this entity is less interested in your demise and more in offering you sometimes-comically irrelevant recommendations (no thank you, My Dad’s A Soccer Mom). There’s too damn much and it’s only getting worse.
With a library of shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, The Office, The Wonder Years, Sons of Anarchy, and originals like House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None, Arrested Development, Orange is the New Black, Making a Murderer and way too many more to mention, how is one expected to choose the best option and still maintain a normal watch-life balance? One is not. And that is how one will find oneself fed up with searching and succumb to bingeing all three seasons of whatever Young & Hungry is within a weekend. The titles listed above are just the tip of the Netflix television iceberg, and that’s still to speak nothing of the constant influx of movies available or the innumerable other services with their own catalogs like Hulu, Amazon, HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, Crackle, etc. Oh, and then there’s actual TV TV.
This Business We Call Show(s)
According to industry insiders, we are in the midst and the muck of Peak TV - a term coined last August at the Television Critics’ Association (TCA) conference by FX Networks CEO John Landgraf. In 2015 alone there were 412 original scripted series airing on television. Shortly after that conference, FX added that number to the then-current tally of reality and docu-series to generate a list of all primetime television series, which ultimately topped out at more than 1,400 shows on the air. At the TCA in January of this year, multiple network executives expressed concern that there was simply too much TV and not enough viewers. Landgraf himself stated, "We make more shows than we can afford, collectively."
And it’s not that there are simply too many shows for people to watch; watching is just the first step. From pre-caps and re-caps to podcasts, parodies and think pieces, every episode of your favorite program now comes with an endless supply of supplementary content. Keeping up with all of the extra noise and social media chatter for just one show is hard enough for those of us with a full schedule. How can we expect to find the time to do it all two-to-ten times over? Our dalliance with a television show has transformed from passive pastime into a full-blown relationship. But with 1,400+ potential “suitors,” our regularly scheduled rose ceremonies are becoming thornier. As one writer recently put it, “TV used to be a reliable, steady boyfriend; now, it’s a series of haphazard Tinder dates.”
Let’s be honest, though, networks aren’t planning to slow things down anytime soon. On top of that staggering number, there’s a constant wave of new late night shows, live events, sports, the news and more. In a recent podcast appearance, Louis CK quipped there’s so much porn online that they could stop making it and you’d still never see it all. Mainstream entertainment might be trying to prove him right. The aforementioned streaming services are literally putting billions of dollars behind efforts to add new, original content to their already massive libraries of licensed titles. Genre-specific platforms like NBC’s SeeSo (comedy), the WWE Network (pro wrestling), Crunchyroll (anime), and the recently announced FilmStruck (arthouse films and The Criterion Collection) are carving their own niche in the streaming landscape catering to specific tastes. Even our libraries have streaming libraries. Hoopla Digital is a service, available for free through public libraries across the country, that connects users with a huge catalog of films, TV shows, e-books, audiobooks, music and more.
That’s right, Dear Reader, from films and music, to video games and the written or spoken word, there’s more than just TV out there. Believe it or not, there are those rare beasts who have never seen a single episode of Game of Thrones because they’re still too busy listening to archived episodes of The Moth podcast or playing Mass Effect 3, and thus won’t get your killer #HoldTheDoor tweet.
The Struggle is Most Definitely Real...And the FOMO Can Be Crippling
Research has shown that because of the unprecedented overabundance of options, the very thing that is supposed to enrich our lives and bring us happiness is working against us. Our constant sprint to keep up with everything that everyone is watching is leading to increased feelings of anxiety, inferiority and even depression across all age groups, but particularly among the one cohort most desired by media networks and the advertisers who pay them - men aged 18 to 33. Not only is the glut of content having an adverse effect on those who consume it, but now it’s directly impacting those who create and control it as well.
While those in charge may be under the impression that what everyone wants is more, more, more, the reality is that you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. We already do, and even though it may seem like the endless micro-options available to us are working to our macro advantage, they’re actually making everything that much harder.
In his book, The Paradox of Choice - Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz posits that eliminating choices can significantly reduce our anxiety:
“Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don't seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”
Schwartz wrote that in 2004. If we weren’t psychologically benefitting from it then, before the great streaming revolution of the late-aughts, we definitely aren’t right now.
From Mass Media To Mass Hysteria
It wasn’t that long ago that entertainment across the entire media spectrum was something we all shared together. Sure, there were genres and everyone had their preferred niche, but music, television and film on the whole was a shared experience. If given the choice and the media fragmentation of 2016, do you think even half of those 125 million people in 1983 would have actually sat through the M*A*S*H finale? Today, even the most buzzed-about episode of zeitgeist-defining shows like The Walking Dead will have trouble attracting 15 million sets of eyeballs. Instead, those other 111 million people are too busy watching, reading, listening to or playing any number of different things.
On-demand and streaming technology lets us set our own schedules filled with our own personalized programming (if we can finally decide on something to program) all by ourselves. While it may seem like everyone you know is as up in arms as you are over the delayed release of No Man’s Sky or Steph Curry’s march toward immortality, chances are that if you went looking around the general population, you’d be surprised by the way so many people care so little about these internet-breaking events. That's the problem with living deep within a bubble - we don't notice everyone else’s bubbles all around us.
But the main difference between then and now, besides just the sheer numbers, is the attitude. Our current FOMO-fueled existence isn’t simply making us more anxious and alone, it’s making us angrier and more aggressive. With so many sub-categories (and their accompanying sub-reddits) available, we’re developing a greater sense of ownership over titles, characters, and even creators. It’s now easier than ever to find the title that speaks directly to, or even defines, who we are as individuals. These aren’t just shows and movies we watch anymore, they’re OUR shows and movies, and don’t you even think about changing them. The death or emotional pivot of a beloved character is way more than a cliffhanger until the next volume. Now it’s cause for a Change.org petition to get the writer fired, calls for boycotts, or a book’s-worth of Twitter posts disavowing the supposed crime. In the worst scenarios, it’s justification for online harassment and threats of extreme violence. As film critic, Devin Faraci, writes in his essay, Fandom Is Broken:
“Social media bridged the gap, and creators are no longer working in a void. Instead they're working in some kind of a chamber of screams, where people can and do voice their immediate and often personal displeasure directly and horribly.”
Having unlimited options seems like a fantastic idea on paper, but maybe we should show a little more appreciation for, and take one big collective social cue from, the halcyon days of only having a dozen channels from which to choose.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Media?
Obviously you can’t eliminate shows or films from Netflix or any other streaming service, but you can put some willpower into your selection process. By narrowing your options, you may actually expand your horizon and improve your overall experience. You could keep doing what you’re doing and tell yourself the dinner party was enthralled when you broke down episode 39 of the Korean period drama Horse Doctor or you could try taking a personal inventory of what you want out of your media diet and limit yourself to only titles that will add definitive value back into your social life, like interesting documentaries and books.
The truth is, at this point you probably can’t solve or stop it— and it’s worth questioning whether we should even try. This current stream of media boogeymen may just be a product of the discomfort that comes with changing times. With all that said, it is worth putting in the effort to evaluate how happy your media diet is making you. That is ultimately the point, right? If what used to be a “lean back” experience has actively absorbed too many of our waking hours then we should make sure we’re actually enjoying what we consume. Times change, and media diets do too. But gluttony doesn’t look good on anyone. Trust.
Beyond that - and this is just spitballing here - maybe go outside? Just, you know, walk outside. It's nice. HD. Technicolor. Surround sound. The works.