The Downloadable Wasteland

When I was a glassy-eyed child deposited before my family’s black and white television, we had three major networks to choose from, offering original content each night that was not reproducible for later viewing in any manner whatsoever.

On the sofa one sat armed with “the clicker,” a plastic and metal one-noter that signaled the appealing thunk of one channel unto the next. That parsimonious selection would provoke a call to the local office of Children and Family Services today, but in those innocent days when Arpanet was used to send NSFW printouts from defense contractors to university professors, “thunking” through the 11 or 12 stations that gently circled our VHF dial was plenty good enough for us.


Today, when I retreat to my couch and grope within its dog-chewed cushions for the latest resting place of my contemporary “clicker,” a cruelly multi-featured DVR remote, I find myself far removed from that grotesquery of reduced choices, though the plaintive eventide query remains the same: “Is there anything good on tonight?” Answering that plea only grows more complicated. My cablebox—I mean my DVR—provides hundreds of channels to wade through each evening, conquering time and Madison Avenue, recording hours of programming for me to confront grimly on weekend nights as “TV homework.” Online options for receiving content ready-to-go at my digital beck and credit-card call include Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, Apple iTunes, Netflix and a gang of other Internet-based up and comers.

Now adding to the complexity is the latest alteration of the American mediascape: Delivery services, including the three just mentioned, recognizing that new technology and widening bandwidth are reducing online streaming to a cut-throat commodity business, are transforming themselves into content providers.

Netflix signaled the arrival of this disruptive phenomenon with the release of “House of Cards.” This entertaining satire of Washington power politics was made available for “binge viewing.” The entire 13-episode “season,” if that descriptor still means anything, was posted online all at once. The model heralds the end not only of traditional media programming, but traditional media altogether.

Will television schedules mean much in the future, when most content is captured on DVRs or when an entire series can be soldiered through in one sitting? Can cable companies survive much longer as anything more significant than a pipeline for other services or for a la carte content transfers?

Some of the new shows are promising, the star power and production quality surprisingly high. Netflix is following up on its “House of Cards” success with a new sci-fi TV series called “Sense8,” developed under the guidance of the Wachowskis, authors of the famed “Matrix” series, and a reboot of the format-inverting, family sitcom “Arrested Development.” Hulu has three original series lined up for release this summer.

An innovator of do-it-yourself content, Google-owned YouTube is not standing by while its hold on Internet viewership slips away. Last year it provided $100 million in seed money to jump start channels offering content that is a narrative leap forward from the clips of adorable kitties or skateboarding “fails” that had previously captivated its audience. Amazon’s “studio wing”—yes, the massive online retailer of everything has one of these—is planning to air (can that still be the right word?) a salvo of 13 comedy pilots.

As viewers struggle through this overflow of new content, a personal curating app may become necessary to make sense of all the programs, schedules and subscriptions that will complicate our lives. Can all these new efforts possibly survive, or is a market shakeout likely? Perhaps, much as food retailers have taught us to consume larger portions, this new generation of content creators will “teach” viewers to accept longer couch-cratering sessions. Then the question becomes, are we consuming content or is content consuming us, as TV watching devours leisure time that could have been spent with family, friends or in civic engagement with our communities or parishes.

Of course you could just say no to the abbondanza of content. Perhaps curling up with a good book still offers the most sensible escape from our stressful lives? No worries. I can lend you my Kindle. I think it’s somewhere in my couch.

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