Culture

The Burden of Peak TV

I know, woe is me. But with so many offerings, viewer etiquette has totally changed.

By Shannon Rupp 29 Oct 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

The announcement that the streaming service Shomi will run its last show Nov. 30 confirms something that has been rumoured for a few years now: there’s too much good television.

I have to admit I felt a pang of guilt when I heard Shomi was done. I meant to subscribe. Really I did. I’d heard nothing but good things about the Shaw and Rogers joint venture in streaming. That’s where you’ll find three of the Amazon hits, Transparent, Catastrophe, and Mozart in the Jungle, and they are all on my watch list.

But I’ve been busy. And there are books to read, podcasts to listen to, films, dance, theatre… occasionally it’s nice to talk to other people, too.

Which means the length of my watch-list is something of a scandal for someone who covers culture. I try to see two to four episodes of the major new shows, but I also like to hunt for hidden gems. I’m way, way behind on all of it.

At this point, the duty to watch all the good television is beginning to feel like a bit of a burden. That’s because we’re experiencing what pundits have dubbed “peak TV,” meaning this is as good as it will ever get for consumers looking for just the right show. That idea gained cachet a season or two ago when an American TV executive announced there was “simply too much television” — more than 400 shows. Like many critics, I laughed it off. It’s the sort of provocative comment designed to get publicity, but no one actually thought that John Landgraf, CEO of the FX Network, was serious.

But since Shomi’s demise, I believe him. While everyone in every form of media is talking about our wonderful world of digital offerings on-demand, no one is talking about how many years it will take to watch, read, and listen to everything. Or how it’s led to a weird, disconnected culture in which we’re all existing in our own little worlds.

The recent presidential debates featuring the short-fingered vulgarian brought that home to me at a viewing party. When he made one of his many outrageous remarks, one of my pals muttered, “space bugs.” A couple of us chuckled and began humming that ancient song by The Cars, “You Might Think”.

Everyone else looked at us blankly.

If you’re just as confused as my pals about the sudden enthusiasm for a song from 1984, by a long-forgotten band, I’ll assume you missed the delightful summer satire about Washington politics, BrainDead. It was written by the same team that did The Good Wife, Robert and Michelle King, and it purports to explain the bizarre state of U.S. politics with this hypothesis: aliens, which look like large ants, are invading people’s brains and taking over their bodies.

The brain-eating space bugs make their new zombie hosts weirdly partisan, exaggerating the humans’ natural political preferences. Wackiness ensues. The show is refreshingly bizarre and is as good an explanation as any I’ve seen for this season in American politics. So I was astonished that a dozen people who view politics as a spectator sport could have missed it. (“It’s on my list!” they all said.)

It’s like we don’t even live in the same culture. It was once a given that, even if you telegraphed your disdain for pop culture by announcing that you didn’t watch TV, you would know who the Soup Nazi was or what it meant to be “on a break” or what someone meant when she broke into a chorus of “happy, happy, joy, joy.”

Not anymore. And it’s not as if Canadians are spending less time with their screens. According to a CRTC study just released, Canadian adults are watching more than 27 hours a week of video on TV and online. People over age 65 watch a whopping 42 hours of television a week. Under age 34, watchers only clock 19 hours on the television itself, but hit the average by watching online and perusing music videos on YouTube.

In the U.S. they’re even more committed to watching. A Nielsen survey last summer found the average adult is still watching five hours of television a day — 4.5 hours of that live.

It all leaves me with one crucial question: do they have jobs?

How is it possible to squeeze in five hours of television a day, no matter how pressing it seems to rewatch all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls in advance of the show’s November revival?

I’m also beginning to wonder if this new way of watching TV — all alone, binging, taking notes on Lorelai’s outfits — is contributing to the growing reports of loneliness and isolation. Everyone is blaming smartphones and social media of course, but tuning in to an alternate universe, which you can’t discuss with anyone else for fear of giving away the plot twists, seems like it could be fairly isolating.

And apparently having unique TV tastes has become such a thing that, according to the Chicago Tribune, disputes over which show to watch can contribute to marital breakdowns. They’re offering some guidelines for how to settle arguments over who commands the remote. And — bad news for cable — they’re suggesting that watching streaming services on individual screens, with headphones, together, might just be the key to a happy union.

Now I’m wondering how long will it be before advice columnists tell us to factor in someone’s favourite TV show before we consider them in the marriage-mart? The Walking Dead? Uh huh. Next!

But perhaps the most irritating thing about so-called peak TV is that it has robbed me of a once reliable source of small talk. It’s not just that we no longer watch the same shows at the same time, it’s that etiquette requires we keep mum on even shows a decade old, for fear of revealing spoilers.

I often wonder what some of the communications theorists of the 1960s would say about this weird little turn TV has taken. They used to wax on about how the box was turning us into the “global village” and how TV was the modern answer to the campfire around which people would gather to hear a story.

In my youth, I could believe it. When the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, they had a U.S. audience of 73 million people. There were only 191 million people in the U.S. at the time. According to the newspapers of the era, it was culture shock. Everyone experienced the signal that the Baby Boomers had arrived, bringing their new youth culture with them.

Now TV seems to have become the choice of introverts. And even people who aren’t cultural critics have come to think of television watching as a chore.

When Shomi was cancelled, Moneysense magazine went in search of bereft viewers and found Erin Steinberg, a Montreal graphic designer who mourned that Shomi pulled the plug at the height of the fall TV season.

“I have a hard enough time keeping up with that, and now I have to binge all of these shows I wanted to watch in two months — and work, have a life,” Steinberg told Moneysense. “I don’t know what I’m going to do… I’m just going to have to watch on the weekends to fit everything in. I doubt I’m going to be able to watch all of it.”

I feel your pain, sister. Although here’s a pro tip: ignore the new shows until the November cancellations and then catch-up on the keepers over Xmas.

Also, I think we may want to resist the urge to gorge on peak television since it’s not quite clear how long these glory days will last. Every peak is followed by a decline and no doubt there will be a time, just around the corner, when we will be grateful to find hundreds of hours of great television waiting for us. Even if everyone else saw it first, years ago, we all know the rules: no spoilers!  [Tyee]

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