Survival Watching: The Pros And Cons Of Trying To Keep Up In The Era Of Peak TV


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.

Instead of big name networks controlling when and how people watch television, viewers themselves are making that decision. With streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu making entire seasons and series available at once, we no longer take our cues from content producers, content producers take their cues from us.

Great. Networks aren’t deciding what we watch and how we watch anymore, we are. But being able to choose has presented a new challenge: How do we filter the shows we watch?

To answer that means we have to understand the social component that dominates television watching. With appointment viewing it used to be more obvious — people would tune into a certain show every Sunday night in order to have plenty of water-cooler fodder the next day at work. That still exists — you can’t come in to the office on a Monday morning without hearing someone geek out over last night’s episode of Game of Thrones — but the rise of Peak TV and the surge in binge-watching has changed the game.

Now, it’s harder to stay in the know when it comes to TV because there’s just so much of it. Into drug kingpins? Try Breaking Bad. Love a good forbidden romance? Head over to the CW or ABC. There’s something for everyone out there but the flip side of the coin is, not everyone’s going to like everything. So, what happens when a majority of people in your social circle watch a show you haven’t tuned into yet? Do you give into the compulsion to watch, though you may not be wholly interested in doing so?

“There’s a couple reasons people watch things they’re not really crazy about watching,” Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center says. “One, because if a lot of people you know are watching something, you’re curious as to why they like it and second, you need social capital so that when everyone’s sitting around the dinner table and they’re talking about Stranger Things, you can participate. If you can’t participate, you’re not part of the group and if you’re not part of the group, you’re an ’other.’ It triggers a very basic instinct to be part of a tribe. It’s a survival thing.”

Survival watching. No, we’re not sheep, and just because one person, or even a group of people like something doesn’t mean you have to also. But I’d bet good money that everyone, at some point in their life, has tuned into a TV show solely because everyone else was watching it.

There’s no shame in that. In fact, in the era of Peak TV, the social element of television watching has become even more influential. Because, if you think about it, what better system of filtering the hundreds of shows available to us is there than word of mouth?

That’s where social media comes into play. The internet has a huge role in this new era of television. We’ve taken the ritual viewing out of television through binge-watching and with hundreds of shows and multiple platforms hosting them, we’re not limited to traditional means of choosing what kind of content we like. Instead of networks presenting us with a finite menu of shows to watch each week, we now have a buffet laid before us, and it’s not advertisers or even critics who have the biggest impact in what people choose to watch — it’s other people.

Social media expands not only your choices but who you can talk to about your choices. No matter how exotic your tastes, there’s a good chance you can find some with similar interests online — we’re talking specifically about 21st century TV here. It makes it easier to tap into shows and series you may have never heard of otherwise — expanding your entertainment horizons and becoming a recommender system for other people who share your interests.

In other words, it shifts the means of spending your social capital. Sure, if you haven’t tuned into Game of Thrones yet and your co-workers are geeking out over the “Battle of the Bastards” episode that happened the night before or throwing around parentage theories about Jon Snow, you’re still going to be left feeling out of the loop. Maybe, instead of GoT, you spent your Sunday night watching Preacher, or Veep, or binge-watching old seasons of Gossip Girl. You might not be able to have face-to-face conversations about any of those shows with the people in your immediate social circle. If not, maybe it’s a matter of shifting where you talk about television. A community of fellow fans is now only a click away. Whether you join a Reddit thread or start following fan accounts on Twitter, you can find people to talk to about anything — TV included — you just have to look in different spaces.

All this is to say that the idea of survival watching isn’t necessarily a negative one. It’s not like we’re holed up in dark rooms with bloodshot eyes, forcing ourselves through season after season of a show just so we can have something to talk about with our friends. If anything, survival watching pushes people to not only expand their choices in media consumption, to go outside their comfort zone when it comes to the shows they normally watch, but to also expand their social circle — at least, online.

Social media has balanced out the anxiety we might otherwise feel when faced with 400 TV shows coming per year because, no matter your taste in TV, online you can always find someone else who shares those same interests.

There’s a Darwinistic quality to TV watching these days. Shows live, die and evolve based on what they can offer a viewer: a good cast, a great story, the ability to trend on social media and be worth talking about the next day. It’s our job as fans to weed out what we’re interested in, what we’re not and figure out where we land in the social conversation of television. Maybe that’s the true nature of survival watching: adapting to your environment: opting for membership in more than just one tribe; recognizing which shows add value to your (social) life and focusing more energy on them and less on trying to have your eyes glued to every popular TV show that drops in a week. Because in the age of Peak TV, that’s just impossible.