The Irony of TV’s Content Comfort Trap
Generation X is a spoiled TV generation. Growing up, we had a near perfect balance of choice without excess. We didn’t have unlimited options for everything we consumed. There was just one mall in town, maybe two grocery stores, and if you were lucky two cineplexes, each with just a handful of screens. We had three (and then four) Broadcast networks and Cable TV, totaling a few dozen channels. We had the TV Guide and hundreds of choices, not thousands. Today, we swim in an ocean of infinite options.
So, why in an era of innumerable choice are we bombarded with so much recycled sameness? Reboots. The same tired mega-stars in reconditioned premises. Another Matt LeBlanc comedy. Another Kiefer Sutherland thriller.
Content wasn’t better 10, 20, or 30 years ago, indeed the quality of our media has never been better, but that didn’t stop our love for the warm glow of the television. As a general rule, and the ratings support this, we liked TV. We watched TV. We discussed TV. It is not a leap to say we were happy with TV, even with such limited options. Today we’re facing an existential crisis known as paradox of choice, and the boom in options has led to a market-driven creative glut.
It is directly the rise in options, the exponential growth in the aisles of content that have precipitated in the nostalgia boom. Fueling the fire, DVRs, OnDemand, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have eliminated the need to plan to watch anything. Now we’re in a media ecosystem where there are millions of choices and no pressing need to watch anything now. This has created the content comfort trap, and it is an alarming trend.
It should be a veritable paradise for television fanatics. Limitless choice without a schedule. Watch what you want when you want it. Instead, we get reboots of reboots. We get season 33 of Survivor. We get oh my god, is that a major movie star doing a TV series now!? Why?
What’s changed? Leisure time hasn’t dramatically changed in the past 40 years. Mom and Dad both still work. Kids still have activities after school and homework and such. Primetime TV viewing is still principally working men and women who want to bask in the warm hearth of the television screen between “dinner” and “bedtime” to unwind a day, take in some stories, and be part of the social conversation.
Sure, that same viewer likely has changed the medium for the content. Perhaps that Primetime viewer is watching on her iPad, Fire stick, or perhaps on her DVR. Or OnDemand. Or on YouTube. But, the metrics are clear – she’s watching as much (or more) television than ever. She’s just watching more of the same. More familiar. Another Kevin James series. Another season of The Bachelor. Hey, Rush Hour was a fun buddy comedy movie from the 90s, you guys remember Rush Hour!? Let’s do that!
The root of the issue is the aforementioned paradox of choice. We are, as an audience, out to sea in an endless ocean of content. Psychologists have found that too many options make people unhappy. It leads us to question every decision we make. Sure the show we’ve settled on is good, but could I be watching something better. Without knowing any of you reading this, I am certain you’ve all spent hours searching through Netflix, or flipping through your channel guide, landing on something, and immediately hitting the “guide” button again. The show you landed on is good enough for the moment, but not necessarily what you really want to settle in to. The dark side of choice is doubt. More choice leads to more doubt. Doubt feeds insecurity. Insecurity leads to malaise and discomfort. Ironic, as we generally see the passive action of watching TV as a comforting distraction.
Without a plan in this sea of limitless choice, we swim to the islands of the familiar. The programmers know this. It is called voluntary simplicity by psychologists, risk mitigation by the networks, and discoverability by the marketers. It is the same for TV as it is for any product, and indeed the channel guide looks more and more like the cereal aisle every season. To a couple, faced with rows of colorful boxes, they’ll choose Cheerios, voluntarily – because it is simple, easy, tasty and reliable. To a network executive, they’ll push Cheerios because there’s no risk in Cheerios not being perfectly fine. Sure, Cheerios sales won’t set the world of fire, but there is almost no chance of Cheerios becoming pariah-status. What if General Mills wanted to push a new cereal on us – a new corn flake, perhaps? Indeed, the marketers would rather launch a new flake-based cereal as “Cheerios Corn Flakes” than start with just “flakes.” The chances of a successful Cheerios branded flake is higher than without the Cheerios’ celebrity. The comforting yellow box screams “trust me, I’m your old friend, I won’t let you down.” It is a delicious trap. This applies to every commercial product and service – it’s why for every one Hamilton, there’s a Shrek, Matilda, Aladdin and Spider-Man on Broadway. It’s why we get a dozen Jurassic Worlds for every one Inside Out (the only “original” top ten movie at the US box office in 2015, the others were sequels, adaptations or reboots.)
Let’s go back to that average American couple again. They’re tired because they’ve each worked a 10-hour day, on top of sitting in traffic, getting the kids up, fed, to and from school, and back to bed. They’re fried. Now, drop that couple in the ocean that is today’s television experience. It’s incredibly easy to see them tuning into comfort – something easy and reliable. The known and trusted. Maybe it’s The Big Bang Theory, which has never been a great show, but it’s there and it is consistent. Like Applebee’s. Maybe it’s Lethal Weapon, because “hey, I remember that m
ovie, and have all the warm fuzzy feelings associated.” It’s familiar. Safe. Maybe it’s Shades of Blue, because Jennifer Lopez. I’ve been following her since she was a fly girl! You know what you’re going to get from The Amazing Race, Top Chef, Law & Order SVU, The Bachelor. Old, safe, familiar. The antithesis of risky. If you’re Bravo, why try to create the New when Real Housewives is already a familiar island? If you’re E!, the Kardashians are life rafts. No, we don’t want to see the Eastwoods. You’re asking too much, E!. In just the few weeks since the new season launched, Kevin Can Wait and the reboots of both MacGyver and Lethal Weapon have been picked up for full seasons.
HBO, AMC and Netflix Originals have done a brilliant job at becoming familiar islands themselves. Westworld just premiered, and while that too is a reboot, people will swim to it because HBO. As with anyone on top, they’re all just a few misses away from losing their “island” status, but for now those brands stand tall as familiar highway billboards. Comforting you on your way to bed.
Beyond all of that is nagging immediacy. Instant gratification isn’t instant enough, and thanks to technology, we never need to plan. Anything. So we don’t. Need a ride, push a button. Need a snack, push a button. Need detergent, push a button. Need a show? Pick one. Oh, too many options, huh? Pick the one you know already. Pick the celebrity you already like. Pick the familiar brand.
Planning was crucial before Smart-everything. Plan a meal. Plan to catch a show. Plan to go out next Tuesday after work. Arrange a ride. It required just a little thought, but enough to allow a critical view into the discussion.
The current slate of scripted and unscripted television is as well produced as it has ever been, but it is also the most unoriginal and uninspiring in a generation. Of course there are amazing shows out there – some of the best in the history of the medium – but they take a modicum of effort to discover. I hope you do. I hope the networks begin greenlighting 2 and 3 seasons from the onset. Let new IP grow into an established property. After all, even for perhaps the best show in TV history, it took Breaking Bad nearly its entire run to find its audience.
It’s not all on them though. The networks serve you, after all. They need your eyeballs. So, in the meantime, talk to your friends, read some reviews, and try something fresh. If we reject the formulaic, they will have no choice but to push the envelope for originality. We may all be out to sea with too many options, but we’re not alone and we’ve got maps to the islands of the new.