Is There Too Much TV?

I’m a busy guy. I won’t bore you with the details, but I do have other responsibilities outside of watching television and writing about it.

However, I do love television of all shapes and sizes, so I like to keep up with any buzz shows that cross my path. I try my best to pay attention to the relevant TV news people who keep me informed about the latest offerings from any and all networks (The best source? Right here, of course).

After struggling to get in front of my television for a few weeks, I finally had some time to start pilfering shows off of my DVR. I cued up the DVR screen and discovered that I had 103 recordings available. How is this even possible? Are there even that many shows on television? Some shows had piled up, but no show had more than 3 recordings available. How did it happen?

It’s simply a product of our new television reality. More shows on more networks keep popping up, with many more to come as the summer approaches. Where once an avid TV watcher could count on several down periods throughout the year, now the onslaught never stops. Maybe it’s finally time to consider something many TV fans would consider sacrilege: There’s too much television.

This idea has really started to take hold in recent weeks. Recently, both Alan Sepinwall of HitFix and Andy Greenwald of Grantland penned (typed?) articles discussing the problems with both TV volume as it relates to criticism (Sepinwall) and the increased fracturing of the television landscape (Greenwald). Judging from the 228 comments on Sepinwall’s post alone, it would seem that there are a few people out there who agree with that assertion. With everyone trying to make their mark on the scripted television game, it’s hard to imagine a world where this problem will go away any time soon. It sounds kind of silly to “complain” about the amount of worthwhile television available to us, but the issues go far beyond simple constructs such as amount of hours in a day and TV criticism difficulties.

It suddenly seems like ages ago that television was “water cooler” conversation. The relatively small amount of networks allowed for television to be the ongoing, communal experience it was designed to be. In a previous era, certain television shows were “events”. NBC even trotted out an entirely lineup of buzz shows they labeled “Must-See TV”. And they were right. You had to watch these shows on time in order to be a part of the larger conversation surrounding the seminal shows of the day. Originally, people thought the introduction of the DVR was going to destroy the water cooler conversation. However, many shows remained hot conversation despite the ability to watch them at a much later date. There were only so many shows, and you had to be around for all the good ones.

Now? Not so much. With channels upon channels popping up to offer their own scripted programming, good television can now be found across the dial. More good television is never a bad thing, but with so much available, it becomes impossible to stay up on all the interesting shows being put on the air. Plus, it fractures the television audience in ways that excludes conversation. Television’s place in the internet zeitgeist is definitely secure, but the vast majority of conversation is going to center around the seminal shows of the day (Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, etc.). However, there are plenty of fun little shows that would be great conversation pieces, but they fly under the radar because everyone is so scattered.

In recent weeks, some strong and really fascinating shows have premiered. The Sundance Channel has premiered two of them with Top of the Lake and Rectify. The small channel is trying to carve out a niche for itself. Again, it’s great that another channel is producing fascinating television, but outside of a few TV critics, nobody is really talking about their new shows. The shows that have suffered the most are fascinatingly network shows. Given the stigma of network dramas (quickly canceled, creatively bereft, too many episodes, etc.), it’s tough for one like Hannibal to catch on. While not a signal for the return of amazing network drama, Hannibal is a show with a lot of interesting elements that should spark a conversation. Instead of discussing the show’s mechanics, the show’s only real juice has come from the shady cancellation of one of their more high-risk episodes.

Television used to be a communal experience. New shows would come out and the discussion would heighten. Now, we’re so fractured across the TV map most interesting television shows fly under the radar without conversation. Using our little hamlet here at TV Equals as a measuring stick, it’s easy to see the fracturing of the conversation. Many reviews and other posts go by without much comment from the fan base of over 7400 Twitter followers. Instead of extensive conversation centered around a few shows, there is multiple tiny conversations going spread across all corners of the television universe. Too often, it feels like I’m speaking to an audience of 7 (which I very well could be). I just like to talk about television. I wish I had a larger segment of the population to talk with me. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do when one of us is watching Hannibal and the other one is watching Elementary, Scandal, or Duck Dynasty.

In the face of these struggles, it is important to remember the great things about having more TV. For starters, it keeps good actors gainfully employed. However, it can also introduce us to guys we’ve never seen before. Rectify stars Aden Young. You might remember him from… absolutely nothing! Since the copious amount of television shows exhaust the casting pool, networks are being forced to take a shot with some up and coming actors who wouldn’t get starring work elsewhere. It certainly doesn’t always work out as well as it did with Aden Young, but the rare diamond in the rough is discovered.

Another positive of the television expansion is the constantly raising stakes for good television. With so many options available to viewers, television shows are under continuing pressure to impress and to impress early. Granted, this new model doesn’t really allow a show (particularly dramas) an opportunity to find its sea legs, but the sink or swim mentality will produce some high quality programming on occasion.

Though there are positives to the television growth period we’ve seen in recent years, the fracturing of the television audience into tinier and tinier pockets severely damages the communal nature of watching television. If the big selling point of this age of television is the amount of good television, what does it tell you of the age’s relative success when most people aren’t getting to the “good” television? That loaded question is probably outside the scope of my expertise. All I know is I want to talk about television, but it’s getting harder and harder to find the big conversation.