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Remember when there was nothing to watch? The very first-world problem of too much great TV

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Remember when there was nothing to watch? …No, actually, we can’t. Modern TV is better than ever. But too much choice has created its own set of problems…

Words: Benji Wilson

There is nothing quite like triumphantly finishing the end of a great TV series and then racing into the office the next day to discuss and dissect, desperate to share opinions with our colleagues about the show that swept us away. It’s a buzz that arguably multiplies and intensifies the thrill of actually watching it in the first place. But it’s one that, increasingly, is becoming elusive to chase down; the bubble of our enthusiasm well and truly popped by the fact no-one else is ever on the same page at the same time.

You want to talk about The Night Manager (yes, yes, you’re late to the party), but everyone else is enthusing about Elle from Stranger Things and you have no idea what the hell they are talking about. As the conversation turns to the amusing candour of Fleabag, you back away with glassy, uncomprehending eyes, hoping you won’t be rumbled as the social pariah you have suddenly become.

Once upon a time in the quaint old days of four, and then five, channels we used to instinctively know which TV show would ensure social currency. It was a simple time when the National Grid regularly experienced a 800MW power surge after a dramatic episode of Coronation Street, the equivalent to 300,000 kettles simultaneously being switched on for a restorative cup of tea. We could rely on a lively debate the following day. Now we are overwhelmed with choice and cannot keep up. Thanks to iPlayer and Netflix (who introduced video streaming in 2007, with Amazon Video following suit in 2011), and hundreds of channels popping up on Sky, Virgin Media, BT, Freeview, Now TV and YouView, everything is available simultaneously somewhere. We can watch anything anywhere at any time; on tablets in bed or smartphones as we commute.

While the quantity is mindboggling, it’s the quality that presents the true dilemma: how is there time to watch everything? High-quality TV drama has gone from one or two treats amid endless repeats to something close to a happy chore. Indeed over the last five to 10 years, TV has arguably surpassed Hollywood for memorable moments. Whether you were swept away by Don Draper on a cliff top meditating his way to the perfect Coke ad in Mad Men, or the bone-tingling suspense of working out who killed Danny Latimer in Broadchurch; whether it was Aidan Turner’s chest in Poldark, the 15-month wait to discover how Sherlock fell off a hospital roof and lived, the death of Derek Shepherd in Grey’s Anatomy (sorry! Spoiler!) or the death of practically everyone in Game Of Thrones – TV has become the format for artistic excellence. Now we don’t just have lots of television, but lots of great television.

Just take the next few months. The BBC has One Of Us, a taut new thriller from the writers of The Missing, as well as an imagined history of a Nazi London called SS-GB and Tom Hardy in Taboo. ITV counter with Victoria, starring Jenna Coleman as the young Queen, Netflix will show The Crown, a £100million epic about Queen Elizabeth II in her early years; and Amazon debut The Collection, another lavish spread about a Dior-esque fashion house in post-war Paris. Sky is the main portal for the best American drama with HBO’s Westworld, the brilliant Criminal Justice remake The Night Of and Jude Law in The Young Pope. And that’s not to mention new series of The Fall, The Missing, Fortitude, House Of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, Catastrophe, Sherlock and Doctor Foster. In theory, these riches should create copious watercooler moments. But as Albert Einstein famously said, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

While we can no longer complain that “there’s nothing on TV”, having an abundance of choice is not as freeing as we’d hoped. The psychologist Barry Schwartz best elucidated the idea that too many options can be a bad thing. His book The Paradox Of Choice: Why More Is Less will be a life raft for those of us drowning in must-watch shows, tempted to sack off the lot of them and eat a KitKat in nun-like silence instead. A study from Columbia University, US, found that having too many options made us less likely to be happy with our choice, if we made a decision at all. Rather than making us feel empowered, Schwartz says a profusion of choice can be so overwhelming it actually increases anxiety. “Unlimited choice,” Schwartz explains, can “produce genuine suffering”.

Whether the agonising decision to go for Billions or the fourth season of Banshee (what – you didn’t see Banshee?) will produce genuine suffering in the average person is probably dependent on how seriously you take TV. But there’s no doubt that right now there’s more choice than ever, and that the advent of social media means you’re more aware of that choice too (through people tweeting stuff like “What – you didn’t see Banshee?”). Keeping up with the best TV – and the social conversation that surrounds it – has never been more frenetic, or felt more impossible.

Watercooler TV

Why do we even care? After all, agonising over what to watch surely has to be followed by #firstworldproblems. Yet, there’s something exciting and joyful about joining a conversation about something you’ve seen on TV – it instantly forms what David Edmonds, author of Big Ideas In Social Science, calls a “we identity”, an uplifting feeling of being understood.

Stranger Things: a melting pot of Eighties pop culture from Stand By Me to ET

Stranger Things: a melting pot of Eighties pop culture from Stand By Me to ET

“Watching the same programme at the same time as others gives us a sense of shared identity and what we call ‘relatedness’, that, ultimately, makes us feel happier as part of a collective,” adds psychologist Dr Fergus Neville at the University of St Andrews. Our brains are even wired to keep up with the latest ‘It’ show: a study of neurological scans published in the journal Psychological Science shows agreeing with others’ opinions activates the areas of our brains – the orbitofrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens, if you will – that compute what we value and feel rewarded by. That neural drive is so strong that we sometimes fib about exactly what we’ve spent our time watching in order to conform.

Thanks to on-demand video streaming services, the ways that we’re watching television are rapidly changing too. New research from the Boston Consulting Group shows mobile viewing is expected to account for 40% of all viewing by 2018 – remarkable when you consider that two years ago, less than 2% of us were streaming video on our smartphones. And already for our generation, “online video services are the primary source of viewing”, says Richard Broughton, research director at Ampere Analytics, who specialises in media analysis.

The transition from linear programming to online and mobile viewing is at the heart of the decline of TV as a collective experience. To take one example, the big reveal to the 2001 ‘Who Shot Phil?’ storyline in EastEnders got 22 million viewers in a single evening. The plot exploded into real life, with campaign posters everywhere and bookmaker William Hill taking over 50,000 bets on whether it was Steve, Mel, Dan, Ian or Lucy. In contrast, when Netflix released Making A Murderer last December, it scored only 565,000 viewers, yet five weeks later, figures shot up to 19.3 million. Conversation in the office was limited to “are you watching?”, before banter was silenced by FOFO – Fear Of Finding Out what happens, even though the spoiler was a month old. We no longer share the unifying experience of watching concurrently, can’t swap stories and theories, and we feel left out if friends watch something else we haven’t even heard of. Frankly, it’s almost a break-up offence if your partner finishes a box set while you’re out (ish).

Virtual reality

So are our fragmented viewing habits making us emotionally isolated? Not so, say TV executives, who claim the national conversation now takes place around a virtual watercooler, on social media. For example, series one of Broadchurch broke Twitter records, peaking at 8,493 tweets per minute, and made up almost two thirds of all British Twitter traffic during its broadcast.

This instant response is invaluable for programmers, who used to have to wait a month for results from the Nielsen viewing figures survey. Social media has become the new measure of success. And production companies are responding to this brave new world by altering the type of programmes they make.

“A lot of broadcasters have adjusted strategy to focus on big watercooler-type shows,” says Broughton, who points to Game Of Thrones as an example. Sky chose to do the first broadcast of season six at 2am, the same time as the drama aired in the US, to avoid plot spoilers on social media. “Fans want to watch big shows as soon as they come out – you still get those watercooler moments, even if these days the reaction is on social media rather than face to face. That’s going to stay.”

At the BBC, iPlayer, which began life as a catch-up service, has grown into a primary viewing device. From September, legal changes mean you need a TV licence to download programmes on demand, including catch-up TV. To keep growing viewers, we can expect to see more new dramas like New Blood premiere on iPlayer, with the whole series instantly available to binge-watch before being broadcast a week later. “We have to recognise that people don’t watch TV the way we used to,” says New Blood’s writer Anthony Horowitz. Traditional broadcasters have to cater to two tribes: early adopters who want to watch before everyone else, and traditional weekly viewers who like the structure and routine of a regular show.

Another broadcasting impact throwing us all out of sync is the delivery of programmes themselves. In May, Sky gave customers exclusive access to the full series of its new Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti blockbuster Billions, at the same time as the first episode premiered. The show broke on-demand records with 11 million views and helped Sky drive up revenues to an all-time high of £8.3billion, and subscribers up to 21.8 million.

One Bafta-winning producer who asked not to be named told Stylist she thinks drama is caught between two stools: “We’re still in the world of network TV, where it’s one episode per week and you need a massive cliffhanger at the end of every episode in the hope it will bring an audience back. But if you’re binge-watching (which is what we’re all increasingly doing), that kind of artificial story device becomes annoying.”

As we watch TV on our own terms, narrative arcs will no longer be slave to other commercial constraints like having to spike every 12 minutes for an ad break. Instead, the drama will fit the plot rather than an outdated programming schedule, and probably improve TV by another great leap.

At this rate, we can expect the impossible within a decade. We may find ourselves actually surrounded by our favourite shows – Sky have already built a virtual reality studio and VR seems to be the industry’s next big leap forward. We’ll see it first in sports broadcasting, as advocates aim to give viewers a 360-degree experience that immerses us in the live experience of being at a sporting event – which then may translate further to documentaries and drama. For now though, we don’t need any more choice. So whatever you’re watching – whether you’re halfway through the next big thing or you’ve never even seen The Wire (you what?!), at least be assured that we all still have one thing in common: we are privy to some of the best TV ever made.

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