How many times in the last week has someone asked you if you watch a certain TV show? How many times have you had to say no? In the early days of television, there were so few shows that families huddled around their TVs at the same time every night to watch their favourite program – a show that would have everyone abuzz at work the next day. I might sound like your grandma here, but in the old days, shows like I Love Lucy and All in the Family had this effect on audiences. There was a sense of community and conversation that only shows like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things – the one-percenters of television – have even come close to mimicking. So what has changed?
Half a century later, there are nearly 500 scripted TV shows coming out of the US alone in 2017, which doesn’t even include non-scripted reality shows or docuseries. Due to the quality of writing and programming in the 1950s, the era was dubbed “The Golden Age of Television”, a title which was reclaimed for the period throughout the 1990s to early 2000s. Today, we have a new name for the state of programming: “Peak TV”. With the addition of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the new, exclusively American, Facebook Watch, there are far too many platforms to search for the best of the best. As The New York Times reported: “Apple has more than $1 billion budgeted for original programming, Facebook wants its own version of Scandal and Google is ready to spend up to $3 million per episode on drama.” In addition, Disney, ESPN and Verizon are all looking to enter the already saturated streaming market within the next year. With this much content, how can we possibly decide what to watch?
Content is king
The saying “content is king” is most commonly associated with Bill Gates when he first established the mantra for Microsoft during the mid-90s. Most distributors of programming would agree that the content they own is their greatest asset to bring in viewers -- their pièce de résistance at a very full dining room table. In the early days of FX and HBO, every show was meant to be an event and they’ve since stuck with the idea that great content should be talked about. Like many other award-winning shows, Game of Thrones has a Sunday night time-slot, not only because audiences watch TV on Sunday more than an other day of the week, but also to instigate “watercooler talk” in the workplace throughout the week. Though not every person on the planet watches the popular medieval fantasy epic, it’s the closest thing to the global conversation synonymous with the early days of cable viewing.
This strategy to make every show’s episode an event is very different than the one Netflix is implementing in their bid to acquire and fund as many shows as possible. According to an article from The Atlantic, while FX president John Landgraf coined the term “Peak TV” as a warning, chief of content at Netflix, Ted Sarandos, sees it as a marketing tactic. In his eyes, “risk-taking is much more appealing than releasing a hit every time”. By giving all Netflix executives buying power, Sarandos allows the green-lighting of as many shows as possible.
But in late 2016, the former chairman of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (also known as the CRTC) Jean-Pierre Blais, declared: “Content may be king, but the viewer is emperor”. This means that broadcasters and subscription services can have whatever content they want, in as high volumes as they want, but ultimately, it is the audience that decides what they want to watch.
Do we really like what we’re seeing?
So, yes. We control the remote, or rather the mouse on our laptop, but are we really watching the best content out there? Do we have the time and effort to search through Netflix’s database for an hour or flip through channels just to find something that we might want to watch?
According to a study conducted in October 2017, 49 per cent of viewers believe that with so many choices it’s difficult to choose what to watch. On top of that, the percentage of people who believe their time is spent watching shows they actually like has decreased from 81 per cent to 73 per cent since 2014. This means people are finding it more and more difficult to sort through the voluminous quantity of programming while being less satisfied overall with the quality of shows they’re watching.
What’s even more interesting is that the results indicate that 1 in 3 people said they would only try a new show if they are “pretty confident” they are going to like it. This brings to light the idea that we often only watch what is easily accessible or popular and aren’t very willing to try anything new if it will waste of our precious time.
I like to consider myself somewhat of a matchmaker when it comes to TV shows. As a television-viewing fanatic, I’ve seen so many shows that I think are amazing and actively try to convince my friends and family to watch them. But quite often, the people I want to share them with have never even heard of my favourite productions. Shows like Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Da Vinci’s Demons are critically acclaimed on popular review aggregation sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, but be honest, have you even heard of them? It’s not because the shows aren’t good that they aren’t popular, it’s because they are difficult to find. It’s because the vast quantity of programming on Netflix, or even cable, makes it nearly impossible to dig through and find the hidden gems of the television world.
Research from NBCUniversal recently found that television viewers are not only indecisive about what to watch, but also take longer to watch shows than ever before by virtue of the taping and archiving mechanisms of DVR and online streaming. I know this to be true because my Netflix Watchlist is way longer than I care to admit. Although I’d love to watch it all, I simply don’t have the time.
Are we still limited?
We are all aware that popular culture and mainstream media trends in the entertainment industry shape everything from the way we dress to the actors we stalk on social media. But now, with the combination of limited time and far too many shows to choose from, mainstream culture is rooted in what we choose to watch. The fact of the matter is that if a bunch of our friends are watching a show, it’s likely we’re going to jump on the bandwagon and check it out as well, rather than search for something on our own. This brings us to the conclusion that despite living in an era of “Peak TV”, we are still limited in what we watch.
This issue of too much content on TV is just one example of our growing indecisiveness and constant desire to find the best of the very best. With access to so many options, choosing a restaurant, a movie or a book can breed a thousand and one dilemmas. With all the other decisions we have to make on a regular basis, finding a show to watch at the end of the day shouldn’t be the most difficult one. So, the next time your friend asks you whether or not you’ve seen the latest episode of Riverdale, think not only about whether you actually want to watch it, but also whether you could be watching something else.