Overloaded: Is There Just Too Much Culture? | TV & radio
TThere was a time in 2012, oh, when I thought I would be able to keep up with all of this. And by “everything” I meant all the good TV shows, all the good movies, all the good music. From my little studio in Austin, Texas, I would read the Twitter feeds of reviewers I liked and then consume what they told me. I caught some obscure documentaries in one of the local theaters. I have BitTorrented shows that fell under the ever-expanding banner of “quality” television. Spotify meant that, for the first time, I could really listen to the top 100 albums of the year, as advised by Pitchfork. I saw blockbusters on Friday nights in movie theaters full of teenagers. I listened to Top 40 radio. I read the latest Pulitzer winners and the four Twilight books. I was enjoying myself, but not too full yet.
Or, to use a different metaphor: I walked on water in what I saw as a glorious and expanding sea of ââmedia, such a contrast to the options of my rural youth, when my choices were severely limited by the options of the video rental store. , extended cable, and the only CD a month I could afford with childcare money. Of course, elements of my access were either illegal (BitTorrent) or very little paid to the artist (Spotify). But I also had the impression, just like when I was 27 years old, that I had finally reached a kind of comfortable ease, one that allowed me to always answer “Yes” when someone asked me. inevitably asked, “Have you seen / read / heard that?”
Soon the definition and number of TV shows that seemed essential – or “quality” or part of a larger conversation – began to increase. It wasn’t enough to have watched The Wire and The Sopranos and be caught up with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. There were The Americans and The Good Wife, Outlander and The Knick, Game of Thrones and Homeland, Broadchurch and Happy Valley, as well as all the current seasons of shows that previously seemed very important (see: House of Cards) but which looked more and more like a chore.
Maintaining my fluency was getting harder and harder: I was a media studies teacher who could devote hours of my so-called workday to the task of consuming media. I was still far behind, and more every day. As I discuss my struggle to metabolize what seemed like an endless meal, I focus on television. But the television was only part of the bigger, overwhelming feast. Around the time that television options began to expand, the offer (and our access to) of so many other forms of culture, from YouTube to digital mixtapes, also expanded.
In 2009, for example, 7 million people worldwide were using Spotify, with its seemingly endless music access; by 2014, that number had climbed to 60 million. Also in 2009, the teen YouTuber known as âFredâ became the first to see his channel reach a million subscribers. In 2014, a new YouTube channel was reaching this milestone every day. In 2012, 10 hours of music and audio were uploaded every minute to SoundCloud, going beyond traditional methods of production and distribution. In 2010, approximately 1,500 podcasts were released on iTunes each month. In 2015, it was almost 6,000. But something about the way television consumption standards have risen made it more overwhelming.
Maybe it had something to do with how difficult it was to have a shared conversation about a show: with my friends, who all seemed to be going down different paths; or with my students, who seemed to watch nothing at all; or even online, where the cherished art of episode recapping seemed less and less useful. Part of this could be blamed on Netflix, which in 2013 began its now common practice of releasing an entire season at once. Another factor has been the continuing and slowing decline of the media monoculture, first sparked with the broadcast of cable in the 1980s. Technology has made it possible to make more television and, thanks to demand, people. watch more. Index: 389 scripted TV shows aired in the US alone in 2014 – up from just 182 in 2002.
It was around this time that critics began to ask us if we had reached the âpeak of televisionâ. From the Guardian, in 2015: âFour hundred shows and no time to watch them: is there too much TV on television? From the New York Times: âAre there too many TV choices? And from NPR: âIs there really too much TV? A survey commissioned by Hub Entertainment Research found that 42% of viewers who watched five or more hours a week thought there was too much television in 2014.
But this survey also found something fascinating: 81% of viewers said the time they spent watching TV they spent watching shows they really liked. For anyone who grew up sharing a TV with their family and choosing between three and 15 great options, this is a real change. Instead of spending your Thursday night watching a rerun of a sitcom you never really liked just to have something before Friends started, you watch something you chose and, at least theoretically, keep watching. Choose.
There are, however, limits to the pleasures of choice. When Hub Entertainment Research asked the question again in 2017, only 73% said they spent their time watching shows they really liked – while the percentage of people who thought there was ” too much television âfell from 42% to 49%. The survey did not ask respondents to delve deeper into their reasoning, but perhaps they felt something similar to what I was feeling at the time: like half of the things I was looking at, I was looking at a strange full trend; and the other half I was watching because I felt like I ‘should’, especially if I wanted to continue to be part of an imaginary online cultural conversation.
The result was a mixture of resentment and paralysis. I would watch two episodes of a show and get out on bail, just because I didn’t want to commit to the whole season. Going through the streaming menus was like babysitting hundreds of little kids, all clawing at me, desperate for my attention. Every time I saw a poster on the subway for another new show that I had never heard of, I wanted to graffiti it. How dare these networks produce so much, in so many forms, with so many seasons! How dare they produce so much content!
Of course, this feeling was totally irrational and totally wrong. “Peak TV” meant more TV shows, but it also meant more shows aimed at people who weren’t me, AKA people who weren’t straight, middle-class white women. The history of television is, in some ways, the history of executives who find out that people other than white people can spend. Black people spend money, for example, and would you believe gay people spend money too?
But the problem with Netflix is ââthat – unlike, say, a network – it wasn’t trying to attract a type of viewer that it could then sell to an advertiser, because there was no advertisers. Instead, Netflix was just trying to have enough content, meeting enough interests, to be able to convince as many people as possible that they should keep paying for its services every month. To make itself ever more valuable for ever more people, Netflix has started using its massive datasets, gleaned from the watch histories of millions of customers, to give struggling consumers a way to stay afloat. When you logged in, instead of feeling overwhelmed, you were meant to be comforted that the screen was showing you what was popular, and what other viewers like you were watching and what you were watching. He was supposed to feel organized but abundant; content but endless appealing.
Maybe that’s what you felt. It is certainly not what I felt. Back then, I was burning energy in my work, working in the ground trying to find the kind of stability I hadn’t really felt from that studio in Austin. Back then, I was ending my day of writing with a movie, or a few hours of the last show I had torrented, or even live music. It was like a bookend, like an exhale, like a real break. In 2017, all that media seemed like another item on my endless to-do list, as obligatory and joyless as doing dry cleaning.
So I did what I did when it comes to so many causes that fuel a larger sense of burnout: lowered the bar, then lowered it again. I stopped listening to most podcasts except the ones that I really, really like. When I watch TV it’s a mix of things that I actually enjoy and comfort me, regardless of how fresh or how cool (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), shows that rekindle anticipation and glory of the day before the weekly meeting (Succession), and shows that I arrive a week, a month or a year late. I hate the Spotify algorithm, but I love music that comes to me the old-fashioned way: by people I know who tell me about it. I feel like getting away from a movie theater and will be back soon – but I have also stopped feeling guilty of a pandemic aversion to movies. This love and hunger will return. Feeling bad about it won’t make it happen any faster.
If someone were to do this poll to me today, asking me whether or not there is too much television, or even just too much media, I would say no. I’m glad there is so much to do to push other people’s buttons, to get them to watch and review, to make them feel seen and celebrated. Hope there are more weird, 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 constant thirst for tenderness. I hope, in other words, that there is more, even if it is not always more for me.