The French have a saying: “Trop de choix tue le choix” (too much choice kills the choice). They must have been sitting in front of a television, remote in hand, choosing what to watch in the waning hours before bedtime. Too much choice has led me to stare at the blank screen like Buridan’s ass.
It used to be so easy: just switch on the TV and flip through the dozens of channels available on cable until you land on something appealing. Or look through the movie listings at the cineplex and choose the one that fits your mood and timetable for an evening out. Commercials told you what to watch for in upcoming days, and distribution was straightforward — you could watch it on that same cable box or at the local movie theater.
Then there were the add-ons. If you wanted to watch the high quality TV series or movies everyone was talking about, you had to upgrade your cable to HBO or Starz. With the introduction of TiVo, Roku, and other DVR technology, you could expand your choices by recording content to view at a more convenient time. But home entertainment was expensive, with cable averaging $80 per month in most areas.
Netflix changed all that in 2007 by offering an alternative to cable — streaming on demand. For under $8.99 per month, you could choose from hundreds of movies and vintage TV shows, and through the magic of streaming, you could watch them whenever you wanted — no more waiting until Thursday at 8:00 for your favorite show. Soon Amazon jumped into the game with Amazon Prime, a streaming service that was bundled with free shipping for Amazon products. (This week Amazon sent me an accounting of how much I saved with my $139 annual fee this year: a whopping $1,148 in shipping fees! Yes, I use Amazon way too much. But it is just. so. convenient.)
Now I have to sign up for a streaming service and agree to a monthly membership fee in order to watch a blasted movie!
I was content. I could manage the choices offered on Netflix and Prime. I could even take my entertainment on the go with my laptop or cellphone. I was happy with my entertainment options.
And then everyone got into the act. Disney offered its content as a paid streaming service. NBC introduced Peacock as a way to access NBC content whenever you wanted to watch it. CBS offered Paramount Plus, with great new shows made specifically for Paramount that aren’t available on the CBS Network. ESPN created an all-sports channel. HBO Max is a streaming service separate from its cable partnership. Hulu, Tubi, Pluto, Fubo, Sling, Apple, History, Discovery, Youtube TV — dozens of services became available for a mere $5–10 per month.
Then niche services got into the act. SalemNow and DailyWire offer conservative content. Pureflix, Crossflix, and Angel Studios offer Christian-friendly content. ASG.stream and Emergent Order are two libertarian-oriented streaming services. Revry is an LGBTQ+ provider. If there is a niche interest, there is probably a niche streaming service providing focused entertainment for your viewing pleasure. There are over 200 streaming services available now, with additional niche services launching every month.
So what’s wrong with that? Doesn’t this provide the choice I’ve been longing for?
Well, here’s the problem: I don’t know what to watch, or where to watch it! My social media feed often contains teasers for films that seem like something I would like to see; and in the old days I would look for these movies at the cineplex, plunk down my $8.50 for a ticket, buy my discounted box of popcorn (there are advantages to being a senior), and enjoy a film. Or I would find it on Amazon, pay a screening fee if it’s first run, and watch it at home.
That’s my entertainment dilemma. Too many choices, too much money, too little interest.
Now I have to sign up for a streaming service and agree to a monthly membership fee in order to watch a blasted movie! In many cases, the advertised films are really just bait for joining the organization that produced them. Recently Daily Wire has been producing films that appear to be timely, well scripted, and well acted. I’d love to watch them and review them here. But I’ll never know, because I don’t want to become a Daily Wire member. Why can’t I just pay them $20 to watch the damn movie? Why do I have to get on their list?
This new, customized way of watching entertainment also affects my role as a movie reviewer for this magazine. Not only do I need to select films I think my readers would enjoy, but I also have to consider whether they have access to the streaming service on which it is available. I don’t want to become a shill for Disney or Daily Wire, just because I reviewed their film.
What started out as a cheap way to access entertainment on my own schedule has turned into a nightmarish clutter of streaming services that I may or may not access once I’ve watched the film that caught my attention. Two years ago I signed up for Peacock so I could watch the US National figure skating competition. (I know — I’m such a nerd!) I’m still paying for the service, even though I only use it in January. Dumb, I know. I should just cancel it. But “it’s only $8.99,” right? Too much trouble to cancel and resubscribe when I need it. Multiply that times a dozen “only $8.99s,” and cable is suddenly starting to look cheap. If you subscribe to the top ten streaming services (Netflix, Prime, Disney+, Peacock, Paramount, ESPN, Hulu, Sling [for news], Apple, and Max), you would pay nearly $100 per month!
Do you remember the spontaneous surge of joy you felt when a favorite song came on the radio? You immediately reached over to turn up the volume and sing along or tap the rhythm on your steering wheel.
And you still wouldn’t know what to watch. My greatest frustration with these services is that I never know what’s on. Recently we switched from our local cable to Youtube TV because it offered all the cable channels we enjoy plus a few of the better streaming services we like, and at a price lower than cable. But YouTube TV has no Guide, and we’ve given up trying to find out what’s on. We’ll be switching back to cable when the trial period is over. Granted, these services use algorithms to create customized suggestions for each customer, based on our viewing histories. But here’s my dilemma: I use Netflix to stop the tormenting loop of thoughts in my mind when I’m trying to fall asleep. I select a boring sitcom I’ve seen before, stick a bud in my ear, and let the inane, familiar dialog lull me to sleep. I’m not actually watching it — I’m ignoring it. But based on that “viewing history,” Netflix keeps offering me boring sitcoms and sappy movies instead of the thrillers, comedies, and character-driven dramas that capture my interest in my waking hours. I yearn for the TV Guide, where I would circle the shows I planned to see and settle back contentedly with my weekly “shopping” done!
I also miss the serendipity of flipping through the channels and discovering a wonderful old movie I hadn’t thought of in years, or a fascinating new show that I would not have considered on my own. “Oh! Look what’s on!” was a welcomed reaction as I prepared to cook a meal, work on a craft project, or sit down for a rest. I feel the same way about Spotify, Apple Music, and the other music download services. Do you remember the spontaneous surge of joy you felt when a favorite song came on the radio? You immediately reached over to turn up the volume and sing along or tap the rhythm on your steering wheel. It just doesn’t feel the same when I choose the song deliberately.
And that’s my entertainment dilemma. Too many choices, too much money, too little interest. Trop de choix tue le choix.
How do you solve the dilemma? How do you choose what to watch in this age of entertainment glut? How can I better serve you as your entertainment editor?