In a world of infinite, often overwhelming choice over what to watch, there’s a case to be made for the pleasures of the scheduled broadcast.
No one, we are told, watches linear broadcast TV anymore – at least, no one under thirty and not many in the next couple of decades up. It’s strictly for the oldies, the only exceptions being live broadcasts of major events. The arrival of on-demand – be it Netflix, Prime, any other new service or simply the online versions of established broadcasters – has essentially upended the tyranny of being made to watch what the TV channels want, when they want you to watch it. Add in home video and there is simply no need to be at the mercy of scheduled broadcasting ever again.
Certainly, the TV schedules in the UK -and, I have no doubt, wherever you are – don’t encourage viewing. Multiple channels churning out the same shit every day, our ‘main’ (that is, traditional terrestrial analogue) channels seem to have degenerated into nothing but cheap and trashy lifestyle shows and there seems no reason at all to sit and watch this parade of lazily-scheduled awfulness when you simply choose from what is effectively an unlimited supply.
Of course, while that unlimited supply is very welcome, I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to suggest that there has been a revolution in the way we consume TV. There’s been a (time) shift more than a complete reinvention. Netflix might have thousands of films and TV shows available, but only a few – the new productions that they are pushing – are ever going to be noticed by most people. On-demand, for most people, seems to be an unlimited choice as to when to watch the same thing as everyone else rather than what to watch.
People clearly still buy into the idea of Event TV. Maybe not quite in the same way – we might not all gather together as a nation to watch the same show at the same time. But whether it’s the latest Netflix show to be massively hyped or some other series on a traditional channel that we are told ‘everyone’ is watching, people still watch the same new programmes en masse over a short period of time.
Broadcasters, old or new, know how to con us into thinking that we are missing out if we haven’t seen the latest show that everyone else is watching – we can’t keep up on watercooler chatter (real or virtual), and no one wants to feel left out. Popular shows become popular less through quality than a collective desire to follow the herd, and whether we all watch them at the same time, or simply within the same week makes no difference – we’re still effectively being manipulated into getting excited over something that will often be forgotten as quickly as it became important to us. Television – and our consumption of it – hasn’t changed that much.
But that’s the thing with human nature. We like choice, but too much becomes overwhelming. Everything is curated for us, one way or another. Shops decide which products to sell, and more importantly, which to display in prominent places – the new and the popular are conveniently placed to ensure that the majority who only ever want the new or the popular can find them quickly and without distraction, in much the same way that Netflix pushes its big new titles to the home page – sure, there is much more there for the adventurous should they want to browse and browse, but for most people that is too much work – why not just go with something from the first half-dozen or so suggestions?
Of course, there is nothing quite like browsing in a book store or record shop, the simple pleasures of not looking for anything in particular and eventually finding it. But that’s a very different thing to the frustration of sitting at home, staring at bookshelves, stacks of movies or endless online offerings, feeling overwhelmed by choice. In a shop, you are looking for something to add to your own collection; at home, that collection becomes a blur of options, none of which feels the one you want right now.
Like, I suspect, most of you, I have a lot of movies. movies on DVD and Blu-ray, downloads and assorted streaming options. Thousands upon thousands of films to pick from every day. Isn’t that great? Well, of course it is. We can see films now that we might never have expected to, lost and forgotten greats lined up for us to select alongside the latest releases and old favourites to enjoy again and again. So why is it that we – and come on, this happens to you too – can sit for ages trying to find something to watch? Scrolling through endless lists on Amazon Prime or YouTube, flicking through files and shelves of movies in search of something to entertain us for the night is the bizarre result of having so much to pick from. There’s always that subconscious suspicion that even if this title looks good, there might be something better a bit further along. The feeling that, no, I’m not really in the mood for this film tonight – it’s too heavy going, too frivolous, too long, too short, my partner might not enjoy it, if I haven’t seen it and it turns out to be rubbish then I’ve wasted my time… when you have infinite choice, actually making a choice becomes infinitely more difficult.
Indecision and doubt are hard-wired into us. In our largely pampered lives, we have more choice than anyone has ever had before us, and we are ever-more baffled by uncertainty, plagued perhaps by an unconscious awareness that as our choices become ever more infinite, our lives become more finite. There is a certain point where you will become aware that you’ll never have the time to read all the books, watch all the movies, listen to all the records, even when you cut out all the ones that don’t seem interesting. Every choice you make becomes more important with each year, and so you waste more and more time trying not to make the wrong choice. So many options, so little time.
For long-winded family reasons, Mrs R and I have recently found ourselves watching more linear TV more than we might have wished and it has thrown up an unexpected benefit. In the search for the least annoying thing to have on, a handful of channels have become standbys – the ones that show old movies on a regular basis. Now, there are many problems with these channels – the often VHS-level quality of Great! Movies Classic for example – but the one unexpected benefit has been the loosely curated and scheduled nature of the broadcasts. Our choice has been frequently been cut down to perhaps three or four films – often less, given the countless times that titles are repeated across these channels – and so it’s easy to pick one. That’s not the primary benefit, though.
Endless choice doesn’t necessarily make us more adventurous. No matter how varied our tastes, we will still, consciously or otherwise, ignore a lot of stuff – especially if we are working through a seemingly endless list of titles with the constant promise of something more interesting appearing further down. A ‘curated’ collection, however loosely we apply that term, pushes us out of our comfort zone. We find ourselves watching films that, had something more immediately to our taste or simply more familiar been available, we might never have bothered with. And so movies that we have never heard of, or had overlooked or always planned to watch but somehow or other never quite got around to are presented to us on a plate – and some of them turn out to be great. Others, less so, but that’s the joy of discovery, isn’t it? In a strange sort of way, it feels like a return to my childhood years of watching almost every movie that was shown on TV and finding whole worlds of cinema. Back then it was movie classics, world cinema, experimental filmmaking and the like; now, it’s movies from the 1930s to the 1960s that slipped the net.
Of course, I’m not advocating for a return to the days of three channels and that’s your lot. Too much choice is certainly better than none. Home video certainly expanded my film education far beyond what TV ever could. But there is something oddly liberating about voluntarily giving up that choice from time to time and letting someone else – someone who does not have any agenda beyond filling a TV schedule with whatever is available – make decisions for you. I look at the last six films I stumbled upon on TV and hadn’t seen before – a mix of cheap thrillers, comedies and dramas – and know that I would probably never have watched these films otherwise; I wouldn’t have bought them on disc or chose them while scrolling through endless titles on Prime or YouTube. That would’ve been a loss to me, frankly.
I would happily see an end to most mainstream TV broadcasting – but that’s down to the relentless awfulness of what they now offer and the way it is often presented rather than the format per se. I do think that there is still a time, a place and a value in services that offer you a scheduled format that you can dip into at will. If you ever find yourself at a loss about what to watch, be it on-demand or on disc, I very much recommend just turning on a channel that is showing doddery old movies for doddery old people and going with whatever they are showing at the time. You never know – you might stumble upon something fantastic.
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