Monday, May 20, 2024

How Much TV is Too Much?


Two weeks ago I signed up for one month of the Peacock streaming service, as I do every May, so I could watch the Eurovision Song Contest, even though the glory days of this annual event have long since passed. 


The scope and spectacle of the thing is still undeniably dazzling. But what began in the 1950s as a celebration of music and hands-across-the-border unity has devolved into a garish display of vulgarity and tribalism. Greece always votes for Cyprus and vice versa, the Scandinavian nations and Russian breakaway republics only support each other, and quality songwriting and performance have been replaced by too many freak show acts direct from Sodom and Gomorrah. 


Plus, I still miss Terry Wogan’s affectionate roasting on the BBC telecast: “Who knows what hellish future lies ahead? Actually I do because I’ve seen the rehearsals.”


None of which has anything to do with Comfort TV, but I needed to get that off my chest. 


As I had Peacock for a month I figured I’d look at what else it offered by way of television shows, in case there was anything worth checking out. 


At first glance it seemed like half the selections under “TV” were about serial killers, which was pretty disconcerting: “Dahmer on Dahmer,” “Family Massacre,” “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise” - apparently Peacock loves murderers as much as the National Geographic channel loves Nazis. 


There were also numerous reality series created around manufactured celebrities who have accomplished nothing to deserve their fame – Kylie Jenner, Kristin Cavalieri, etc.  Typical episode description: “Kristin and Jay make their way to Cabo San Lucas for some fun in the sun.” God, kill me now.


Thankfully, there were also plenty of classics – The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, My Favorite Martian, Dennis the Menace - but they received no more fanfare than all of the other series that surrounded them in the alphabetical menu. 


One could opt for Father Knows Best, or back up one entry and enjoy Fatal Family Feuds (no relation to Richard Dawson). What sounds good for tonight – Hopalong Cassidy or Homicide For the Holidays? Leave It to Beaver or Las Vegas Jailhouse? Here’s Lucy or House of Kardashian


I was overwhelmed not just by the unseemly quality of most of the options, but also by the sheer number of series available from this one source. Are the choices as abundant on Netflix and Hulu and Prime and the rest? Probably. 



Obviously it is still difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that this is what television is now: hundreds of short-run series, released year-round gradually or en masse, to any of a dozen or so streaming services. Some were given the most fleeting of promotion, and were then filed back into the menus of their carriers, quickly forgotten by almost everyone. 


As I scrolled through the Peacock listings it reminded me of flipping through a card catalog, if you’re old enough to remember those when you went to the library. You were there to find one card for a book you wanted to locate in the stacks, but there were so many others, card after card, drawer after drawer, and to even think about reading every book listed would be insane. 


The question of “How much TV is too much” is not new. It was first asked during the era when only three broadcast networks introduced new scripted shows every season. Teachers and psychologists and social scientists feared that Americans – especially children – were spending too much time staring at a screen, watching shows dismissed as foolish and superficial, instead of reading a respected novel or getting more exercise outdoors. 


Since then, the number of hours spent staring at screens has multiplied many times over – it’s just now the screens are smaller and interactive, and allow you to do everything from checking your bank balance to ordering dinner to turning up the air conditioning in the family room while you’re still driving home. 


Television is still an option but far from the most prevalent one. So it seems odd to me that, if TV shows are no longer as popular as other entertainment choices, why are there more of them now? 


And by the way, what are the economics of all this? The overwhelming majority of content on Peacock and – I’m guessing – other streaming services consists of programs from the last 10-15 years, that produced 8-10 episodes and called that a season, Who is paying to produce these shows, and what ascertains whether they are successful? It used to be that viewership determined ratings, and ratings determined advertising revenues. 


That’s why it is still so expensive to buy commercial time during the Super Bowl. Are these services getting enough subscribers at about ten bucks a month to finance so much original content? If so, that’s a bubble that is likely to burst sooner rather than later. 


I have no idea how anyone could possibly keep up with all of the programming options now available. There is enough stuff just on Peacock right now that, averaging three hours of TV a day, would likely occupy all of my evenings until I’m whisked to that great La-Z-Boy recliner in the sky. And if I were limited only to Peacock’s menus, I’d be hastily moving up my departure date. 


Meanwhile, those old warhorses that were our only programming source for much of the medium’s history, CBS, NBC and ABC, serve up still more choices. Some of them – Abbott Elementary, Young Sheldon – continue to be enjoyed by a lot of people, and that’s great. But will they still be as fondly remembered 30 years from now, and create pop culture references and expressions that will be recognized by most Americans? 


Probably not. Because there’s just too much TV now. 


And while all this is happening here I am, still enjoying and celebrating shows that first aired 50 or more years ago, shows that were embraced by generations of fans decades after their debut. But these too are not special anymore, except to those who remember when they were new – or from the first few runs of syndication when programming options were still limited. 


I guess there’s no reason to believe they should be. 


Since watching or even sampling everything is no longer possible, is it too much to hope that viewers who have a few hours in a week to devote to television, or during a month if TV is not really their thing, would be more discerning in how they choose to spend that time? Because there is a reason why great things last, and rubbish winds up where it does. 


I’ve already canceled Peacock, and have happily reverted to evenings spent with the 80-100 shows in my library, with occasional expansions into vintage TV movies and other older series I’ve yet to explore. It’s enough. If I do wander farther afield, it will not be to look forward to current and future TV fare, but likely to more British shows from the same era as my favorite classsics, and maybe a few more from Australia. Maybe this will be the year I finally delve deeper into Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. It’s bound to be more enjoyable than Family Massacre




  1. We piggyback off our daughter's account for the sole purpose of watching the soccer games. The only old show I saw of interest is Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

    1. It's ironic that streaming is surpassing cable but is following the same business model.. Most people who paid for cable watched 5, maybe 10 channels at the most of out of the 300+ they received. Now people get streaming for one event or one sport, ignoring the hundreds of other offerings.

    2. And many are paying pretty much the same as they did for cable.

    3. One thing I forgot to mention. In October Peacock had a bunch of the old Universal monster movies up for Halloween.

  2. "But will they be as fondly remembered 30 years from now" sure sums up your excellent essay here, David. Honestly, I barely have a clue what is on network television these days--I found one new show this season I've been enjoying, "Elsbeth" on CBS. Created by the same team who did the excellent show "The Good Wife" which ran from 2009-2016, which I am currently re-enjoying on Paramount Plus (along with The Andy Griffith Show and The Waltons on FreeVee). I much prefer the older stuff like yourself. Thanks for the good read here sir. PS> David, I wanted to tell you I finished reading your new book "When Television Brought Us Together", and I thoroughly enjoyed it--I was never a fan of Get Smart, but you had me laughing in that chapter. And I loved your piece on The Waltons! Nicely done!

    1. Thanks as always for commenting - and I'm glad you enjoyed the book!

  3. I discovered the Tubi streaming channel which is free. There are so many choices in every genre. For months I have watched every genre in British TV. People are always suggesting new streaming services to me. I really feel that I will not live long enough to watch every series I want to watch on Tubi.

  4. Great read! About 8 years ago, I started switching off the networks and started watching older television, things that were on when I was a kid, but didn't watch. Prime has a bunch of older stuff, but is always changing, here today gone tomorrow. I started watching The Saint on Prime, then they removed it, so I got the DVD set, since then I've been buying up TV shows from the 50's through the 70's, both stuff I watched and stuff I haven't. Same as my reasoning for only buying silver and bronze age comics, if I haven't seen/read it, it's new to me.