Have you ever had a panic-inducing moment of TV FOMO? You know, that feeling when the rest of your friends are talking about the latest Game of Thrones episode and you feel completely out of the loop because you just never got into dragons and white walkers and George R.R. Martin’s homicidal writing tendencies? For you, R+L=J could just as easily be some weird algebra equation, not the foundational theory of Jon Snow’s parentage.
I had a moment like that last week. The rest of my co-workers were tossing around Stranger Things conspiracies, talking about Eggos and the number 11 and I was completely in the dark. I hadn’t had time to binge the show — which is a bit ironic since I write about TV for a living.
As they mused about Dungeons and Dragons characters and Winona Ryder’s truly terrible haircut, I was gripped with an odd sense of anxiety. I suppose I could chalk it up to the paranoid psychosis every TV writer is experiencing these days — that there will never be enough time to watch and write about every show on television or, worse, that I’ll be the last to know about a truly excellent new series on TV — like the Duffer brothers’ nostalgic Netflix drama. But I don’t think that feeling is limited to just me and my group of peers who get paid to geek out over the state of TV’s present landscape in 1200-word columns online.
That nagging sense of anxiety has become the norm in an era that’s come to be known as “Peak TV,” and it’s changed how we watch television in ways that both force viewers to broaden their horizons and retreat into their comfort zones. Last year, FX president John Landgraf introduced the concept of Peak TV, predicting the number of scripted series on air in 2015 would “easily blow through the 400 series mark.” He wasn’t too far off and that number — while being mind-blowing in terms of sheer size — also represents a shift in the way we, as an audience, think about and watch TV.
Peak TV was born thanks to a rise in both original programming and the number of platforms through which viewers watched said programming. This increase in content and the channels through which it’s hosted brings some much needed diversity. We now have shows about female inmates, black women in positions of power, gay couples, transgender people transitioning; shows that explore the stigma of mental illness, that dedicate entire episodes to topics like abortion, rape, hate crimes and racism. Whatever you call it, we are living in a new age of television, one with infinitely more choices than ever before. The problem has now become: How do we choose?
The easy answer to this question would be, we choose what to watch based on what interests us. That’s partly true — no one’s going to spend six seasons watching AMC’s The Walking Dead if they aren’t at least curious about what a post-apocalyptic world filled with zombies might look like. But the more complicated answer involves looking at how this era of Peak TV has redefined the way we watch and think about television.
Years ago, ritual watching — watching a new episode of a show weekly in a permanent time slot — is how most TV viewers consumed shows. But this practice of ritual watching — or appointment television — has slowly been shifting, thanks to the rise of Peak TV and the new form of taking in television: binge-watching. With so many new series available, the only way to keep up is to binge them. Being able to binge shows, controlling the form of consumption, instead of having to tune in at an appointed time each week, means the power dynamic has shifted.