We now have an infinite amount of TV.
We have over-the-air free TV, satellite TV, cable TV, YouTube, and endless professional and amateur streaming programs. We have Big Ugly Dishes, small ku band dishes, smartphones, smart TV’s, DVRs, DVDs, BluRay 4K 8K Apple TV Amazon TV videos on social media and it goes on forever forever forever.
MJ Robinson in TELEVISION ON DEMAND: Curatorial Culture and the Transformation of TV (Bloomsbury Academic 2017) says that that forces each and every one of us into a curatorial role.
That means that we now spend more time trying to find stuff to watch than actually watching it. (Exaggeration mine, not Robinson’s.)
Fun, isn’t it?
No, being a curator – of anything – is not fun. It’s poring over lists and items, and trying to pick the “best”. And, as Barry Schwartz pointed out in his bestselling book of a few years ago, there’s nothing that causes more stress than having to make a decision. Especially when the choices are infinite.
Television is in a “liminal state”, according to Robinson, an anthropological term that essentially means “in transition”. You and I would say, “TV is changing”. Academics say, “TV is in a liminal state”, and then babble on about mystics and shamans, and then wonder why governments threaten to stop funding the soft social “sciences”.
AI, or artificial intelligence – algorithms – are coming to the aid of us amateur curators as we try to figure out what to watch.
Have you noticed your DVR or phone giving you viewing suggestions that most often show up like those “12 albums for 1 cent!” come-ons of our youth? Our phones follow us into the bathroom, our TV listens to our conversations, our car hears our every fart and jittle, priests get a list of your sins two weeks before confession, our dogs are embedded with chips that read our moods. Based upon your past trail of clues, the devices around you help you curate, or pick, what you watch on television. And everything today is some form of television.
There are still national TV networks. HBO is still around. Is TBS still around? Amazon, who sells you toilet paper, now sells you TV, and you happily buy it.
But you can go niche. You can go little TV. You can watch the broadcasts of the home-based minister of a faith that exists only in his or her head. (You and three other viewers.) You can watch pet-bathing channels. Channels showing guys (it’s always guys) waxing their trucks or tube swapping their vintage electronics.
You can broadcast your own TV channel, just like I can blog my own little newspaper. Buy a camera. Find a streaming service. Done. Isn’t this fun? All for six readers or six viewers.
Now, if only you – or Amazon, or Apple, or NBC – could figure out something worth broadcasting.
Because in this environment of infinite TV choices, there is still nothing you can come up with that’s worth watching. With infinite choices, I’ve pretty much “curated” my TV viewing down to CNBC World, CNBC, and, haha, Orioles baseball.
It comes down to attention.
I only have 1 unit of Attention at any given time. Oh, you may think that you can multitask. No you can’t. You only have 1 unit of Attention, too.
How on earth do an infinite number of broadcast choices get your attention?
Robinson in TELEVISION ON DEMAND says that AI will help recommend stuff to us. It will lead us all out of the swamp.
Or, I worry, will it lead us into narcotic solitude, stuck in our own autistic world of video trivia? Will it “save” us as well as it has done with social media? How is that working out? “Apply a little more, a little better AI, better and faster and more advanced algorithms” say the researchers. Yeah, sure.
Meanwhile, the choices shout at us, louder and louder, in more extreme ways, the way candidates do. They must bust through the muck.
But they can’t. We only have 1 unit of Attention each, at any given moment, for infinite numbers of broadcasters to grab.
This Golden Age of TV is going to collapse. With the next economic downturn or depression.
Then we will all sit at home, with our rooms in darkness and with our meagre Basic National Income allowance, and watch Barney Rubble smoke Winstons on PBS.