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Overloaded: is there simply too much culture?


There was a moment, back in, oh, 2012, when I thought I’d be able to keep up with it all. And by “it all”, I meant all the good TV shows, all the good movies, all the good music. From my tiny studio apartment in Austin, Texas, I would read the Twitter feeds of the critics I loved, then consume what they told me to. I caught obscure documentaries at one of the local theatres. I BitTorrented the shows that fell under the ever-widening banner of “quality” television. Spotify meant that, for the first time, I really could listen to the Top 100 albums of the year, as advised by Pitchfork. I saw blockbusters on Friday nights in movie houses packed with teenagers. I listened to Top 40 radio. I read the latest Pulitzer winners and all four Twilight books. I was feasting, but not yet overfull.

Or, to use a different metaphor: I was treading water in what I saw as a glorious and expanding sea of media, such a contrast to the options of my rural youth, when my choices were severely limited by the options at the video rental store, extended cable and the one CD a month I could afford on babysitting money. Of course, elements of my access were either illegal (BitTorrent) or paid the artist very little (Spotify). But I also felt, very much like the 27-year-old I was, that I had finally achieved a sort of comfortable fluency, the kind that allowed me to always answer “Yes” when someone inevitably asked: “Have you seen/read/heard this?

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Soon, the definition and number of television shows that felt essential – or “quality” or part of the larger conversation­ – began to grow. It wasn’t enough to have watched The Wire and The Sopranos and be caught up with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. There was The Americans­ and The Good Wife, Outlander and The Knick, Game of Thrones and Homeland, Broadchurch and Happy Valley, plus all the ongoing seasons of shows that previously felt very important (see: House of Cards) but increasingly felt like a slog.

Maintaining my fluency was getting harder and harder: I was a media studies professor who was able to devote hours of my ostensible working day to the task of consuming media. I was still falling far behind, and more so every day. In discussing my struggle to metabolise what felt like a never-ending meal, I’m focusing on television. But television was just part of the larger, overwhelming feast. Around the time television­ options began to expand, so too did the supply­ (and our access) to so many other forms of culture­, from YouTube to digital mixtapes.

House of Cards
House of Cards felt like a slog. Was this home entertainment’s tipping point? Photograph: Netflix/Kobal/Shutterstock

In 2009, for example, 7 million people worldwide were using Spotify, with its seemingly infinite musical access; by 2014, that number had ballooned to 60 million. Also in 2009, the teen YouTuber known as “Fred” became the first to have his channel hit one million subscribers. By 2014, a new YouTube channel was reaching that milestone every day. By 2012, 10 hours of music and audio were being uploaded every minute to SoundCloud, leapfrogging traditional production and distribution methods. In 2010, around 1,500 podcasts launched on iTunes every month. By 2015, it was nearly 6,000. But something about the way television consumption standards expanded made it seem more overwhelming.

Maybe it had something to do with how hard it became to have a shared conversation about a show: with my friends, who all seemed to be embarking down different pathways; or with my students, who didn’t seem to be watching anything at all; or even online, where the cherished art of the episode recap seemed less and less useful. Part of this phenomenon could be blamed on Netflix, which in 2013 began its now standard­ practice of releasing the whole of a season at one time. Another factor was the continued, slow-motion decline of media monoculture, first set in motion with the spread of cable in the 1980s. Technology made it easier to make more television and, through on-demand, for people to watch more of it. Cue: 389 scripted television shows airing in the US alone in 2014 – compared with just 182 in 2002.

It was around this time that critics started asking if we’d reached “peak TV”. From the Guardian, in 2015: “Four hundred shows and no time to watch them: is there too much TV on television?” From the New York Times: “Is there too much TV to choose from?” And from NPR: “Is there really too much TV?” A survey commissioned by Hub Entertainment Research found that 42% of viewers who watched at least five hours a week thought there was too much television in 2014.

But that survey also found something fascinating: 81% of viewers reported that the time they did spend watching television, they spent watching shows they really liked. To anyone who grew up sharing a television with their family and choosing from anywhere between three to 15 good options, this is a real change. Instead of spending your Thursday night watching a rerun of a sitcom you never really liked in the first place just to have something on before Friends starts, you’re watching something you chose and, at least theoretically, continue to choose.

There are limits, however, to the pleasures of choice. When Hub Entertainment Research asked the question again in 2017, only 73% responded that they were spending their time watching shows they really liked – while the percentage of people who felt that there was “too much television” went from 42% to 49%. The survey didn’t ask respondents to dig into their reasoning, but maybe they were feeling something similar to what I felt at that point: like half the things I was watching, I was watching out of some odd completist tendency; and the other half I was watching because it felt as if I “should”, particularly if I wanted to continue to be part of some imagined online cultural conversation.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
The 500th episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, our correspondent’s go-to comfort watch. Photograph: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

The result was a mix of resentment and paralysis. I would watch two episodes of a show and bail, simply because I didn’t want to commit to the entire season. Wading through the streaming menus felt akin to babysitting hundreds of small children, all of them clawing at me, desperate for my attention. Whenever I saw a poster in the subway for yet another new show that I’d somehow never heard of, I wanted to graffiti it. How dare these networks produce so many things, in so many forms, with so many seasons! How dare they produce so much content!

Of course, that sentiment was wholly irrational and entirely wrong. “Peak TV” meant more television shows, but it also meant more shows directed at people who weren’t me, AKA people who weren’t middle-class, straight white ladies. The history of television is, in some ways, the history of executives figuring out that people other than white people can spend. Black people spend money, for example, and would you believe that gay people spend money, too?

But the thing about Netflix is that – unlike, say, a network – it wasn’t trying to attract a type of viewer that it could then sell to an advertiser, because there were no advertisers. Instead, Netflix was just trying to have enough content, catering to enough interests, that it could convince as many people as possible that they should continue to pay for its services every month. To make itself ever more valuable to ever more people, Netflix began employing their massive datasets, gleaned from the watch histories of millions of customers, to give flailing consumers a way to stay afloat. When you logged on, instead of feeling overwhelmed, you were supposed to feel comforted by the fact that the screen showed you what was popular, and what other viewers like you were watching, and what you had been watching. It was supposed to feel organised yet abundant; contained but appealingly infinite.

Maybe that’s how it felt to you. It’s certainly not how it felt to me. At the time, I was burning out hard at my job, working myself into the ground in an attempt to find the sort of stability I hadn’t really felt since that studio apartment in Austin. Back then, I would finish­ my day of writing with a movie, or a couple of hours of the latest show I’d torrented, or even live music. It felt like a bookend, like an exhale, like an actual break. By 2017, all that media felt like another item on my endless to-do list, as obligatory and joyless as picking up the dry-cleaning.

So I did what I’ve done when it comes to so many of the causes fuelling a wider sense of burnout: I lowered the bar, then I lowered it again. I have stopped listening to most podcasts, save the ones that I really, really like. When I watch TV, it’s a mix of things I actually enjoy and give me comfort, regardless of coolness or quality (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), shows that reactivate the anticipation and glory of the weekly appointment watch (Succession), and shows I arrive at a week, a month or a year late. I detest the Spotify algorithm, but delight in music that comes to me the old-fashioned way: by people I know telling me about it. I crave the escape of a movie theatre, and will come back to it soon – but I’ve also stopped feeling guilty about a pandemic aversion to movies. That love and hunger will return. Feeling bad about it won’t make it happen faster.

If someone were to give me that survey, today, asking whether or not there’s too much television, or even just too much media, I’d say no. I’m glad there’s so much out there to press other people’s buttons, to prompt them to watch and rewatch, to make them feel seen and celebrated. I hope there’s more weird and esoteric and experimental stuff that challenges our understanding of what art can do, and I hope there are more shows like Ted Lasso that remind us of our steady craving for tenderness. I hope, in other words, that there’s more, even if that more isn’t always for me.



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