57 Channels Redux

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2018-01-05 17:00:00-05:00 No comments

Netflix had very few wins and too many failures in 2017 - Polygon

While there is more great television [now] than at any time in history, audiences are having more trouble than ever distinguishing the great from the merely competent. I also believe that there is so much U.S. television we have lost much of the thread of a coherent, collective conversation about what is good, what is very good and what is great.

I think one of the unanticipated side effects of having so much cultural stuff is that it's harder to make a conversation out of all of it.

Here's what I mean by this. Let's take a toy example — a world where there are only three TV networks* and only three prime-time shows on each one. If you only have nine shows airing at once — some good, a couple of them great, and many of them lousy — it becomes easier to assess them against each other, and to figure out what lessons can be learned from each of them.

This is assuming the system in question is not driven entirely by fear and greed and marketing, but you get the idea. A smaller pool of shows in competition with each other for audience attention is less diverse (bad), but it also makes it easier to see why any one thing is better than any other one thing (good), because there's just that much less of any of it to sift through.

Some people will say that isn't the point. Nobody can be expected to watch all of what's on Netflix in a lifetime, because it's not intended for any one audience anyway. So maybe the only thing to do is winnow it down to the stuff you're most likely to be interested in. Start with a broad, diverse pool of entertainments for every conceivable demographic, and work down from there.

But then you come up against other problems. One of them, as detailed in the above-linked article, is how the discovery and curation mechanisms for systems like Netflix are biased heavily in favor of new releases, and are absolutely terrible at figuring out what you might actually like. They assume that just because I watch one Quirky Comedy With A Female Lead, I want to watch all Quirky Comedies With A Female Lead, which is not how taste works.

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The other big problem is an extension of that last insight. Tastes do not map conveniently to conventional demographics. One thing I've always liked about, say, the Criterion Collection, is how they pitch themselves to an audience that loves cinema generally. To them Satyajit Ray's The Music Room is going to be as interesting on its own merits as, oh, Withnail & I. Maybe that's why I like the curation of Criterion, or services like Mubi, more than I do the curation of Netflix. Netflix is not just aiming at the broadest possible audience, but the broadest possible segment of every possible audience, so it favors the economy of mass demographics over the curation of the good and the great regardless of demographic, segment, or market.

Back to the central problem, though, which is how having so much stuff in every form makes it difficult to perform curation on a personal level too. And again, just winnowing down by genre or subject matter or what have you doesn't really work. If I'd read (or watched) nothing but fantasy or SF, I would have missed a good two-thirds or more of the books (and movies) that shaped me as a creator, sometimes far more so than fantasy or SF.

I tend to seek out outfits that have a sense of curation in their mission — Criterion, New York Review Books, etc. — and work from there. The one demographic they seek to please is people curious about all of life as reflected through the best a given art form can provide, and I think that is the demographic most worth aiming for in any creative endeavor.

* This really was the case once. Kids, ask your (grand)parents.

Tags: Criterion Netflix audiences books curation movies