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Entertainment overload: How to make sense of the endless flow of media

Growing up in Calcutta in the 1960s, information and entertainment options were grim. There was All-India Radio with its rigid orthodoxy of official news and uplifting programs. There were local and a few foreign films that survived the censor’s cuts eliminating violence, revelations of the naked human form or the procreative act. The Soviet embassy (run by the KGB) provided occasional ‘correct’ entertainment matched by the US Information Service’s CIA-supported wholesome counter offerings.

Emigrating to the West, Extraneus found a wider range of options. Initially, it was AM stations and black-and-white television with four — repeat four — channels. Progressively, it grew to many FM stations and colour television. In the 1990s, cable TV with its tens and then hundreds of channels catering to every deviant interest appeared. Today, there is an even greater choice – digital audio and video streaming supplemented by the cable TV bundle of channels as well as lingering free-to-air broadcasters. This cornucopia has created new challenges.

There is the cost. As providers struggle to make money, the era of cheap streaming is nearing its end. A basket of top US streaming services now costs around $87 per month, up from $73 last year. Traditional cable TV services have raised prices. As they lose customers, they seek to generate additional revenue from the remaining customer base. The average cable TV package costs $83 a month.

If your thing is specialised content, multiple subscriptions may be required. Football requires subscriptions to no less than several platforms at a cost of around $150 per month to watch Extraneus’ favoured leagues and tournaments. This is before subscription streaming services to watch the timeless Tom Cruise’s heroics in the latest Manichean action flick.

One study found that the average American is willing to pay around $42 monthly for streaming services. In reality, the expenditure is greater. Australian households spend around $70 a month and rising. Once, utility costs such as internet access or mobile plans are included, the expenditure is greater. Prices in developing countries whilst lower still make up a reasonable sizeable claim on middle-class incomes.

Managing the cost presents problems. With payments deducted monthly from your account or credit card, service providers exploit subscriber inertia. Efforts to unsubscribe are Kafkaesque. There are no contact numbers, emails are not responded to, forms that do not exist must be completed, only original signed copies will do, and you can only cancel on 29th February or the Year of the Dog.

Services are additive, that is, you must generally add services as what you already have inevitably falls short of what you need. The smart TV’s IQ proves inadequate. Your TV set-top box cannot handle the service you want requiring entirely new hardware. Your residence soon resembles an electronic graveyard of different devices and is littered with devices, cables, wires, repeaters etc., which constitute a fire and health hazard. Various aerials and satellite dishes rust on the roof.

You also don’t know when what you want to watch is on. Once, Extraneus would receive a monthly magazine listing forthcoming programs. It required a full working day a month to meticulously scan the information to carefully identify items of interest. Capricious last-minute program changes negated careful planning. Today, you take potluck or hope the search function finds what you seek.

The multiplicity has not improved entertainment or information. Where content is concerned, quantity not quality is the operative word. When Extraneus, never an early adopter of new technologies, got around to his first cable subscription, a neighbour proved an astute insight. “Keep it for 6-12 months and you will have watched most of what interests you as there are a lot of repeats.” Other than new films and sporting events, his advice was prescient.

While delivery services expanded, content has lagged for various reasons. New quality content is expensive. Talent and ideas are scarce. The desire for guaranteed successful outcomes shows in the franchise concept (a passable idea stretched ever thinner), remakes, dire soap operas and reality shows.

Extraneus confesses to a love of old films. While there is much that merits repeat watching, access is limited by IP issues. Rights can be held by different holders for different jurisdictions and may be time-limited. Holders, increasingly keen to monetise their libraries through their own streaming services, are reluctant to license content to others. This leads to the aforementioned proliferation of services, costs and the challenges of finding where to watch what you want to watch.

The diversity of services and programs, now increasingly homed in on ever narrower markets of interest to specific advertisers, also creates a lack of shared experiences. If we all watch something different, then the lack of common ground creates a lack of connection with those in our immediate circles. With nothing to share, it is little surprise that when with peers the favoured option is to stare at your smartphone.

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, educator Neil Postman identified that contemporary society, in the affluent advanced nations he was discussing, resembled the world of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where citizens were oppressed by their addiction to entertainment, not state violence as George Orwell had predicted. Postman saw media such as television and by implication cable and streaming services as a form of self-administered medication – a present-day ‘soma’, Huxley’s fictitious pleasure drug by means of which the citizens exchanged rights for entertainment.

Expanding on the work of media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, Postman argued that specific media is only compatible with a particular level of ideas. The medium altered both information and entertainment irrevocably. Packaged visual media formats, in particular, devalued detailed, rational arguments and deeper, thought-provoking content. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters would revisit the same ideas in his 1992 album Amused to Death.

A typical evening today consists of identifying what to watch and a search for where it might be on and if it is a service that you have access to. By the time those issues are resolved, tiredness and boredom have set in. So even if it is available, you shuffle off to bed without watching anything. Despite the promise of ‘everything everywhere now’, entertainment let alone information is now a struggle. A coda to Postman’s book might be entitled Desperately Trying to Amuse Myself to Death. New Indian Express

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