I have to say I was kind of happy when our big-screen TV broke. Relieved. Liberated. The 15-year-old honking monstrosity dated from the pre-plasma days and resembled Jabba the Hutt, but it worked, sucking us into its vortex of images and sound. My husband and I watched movies when we could find something at the local video store we hadn't seen, but increasingly it became TV shows -- "Prime Suspect," "Cracker" and, for one hallucinatory summer, three entire seasons of "The Shield." Addictively, like we were strung out on the crack cocaine of Michael Chiklis' angry adrenalin.
Apparently I'm not alone in my inability to voluntarily shut down the pop culture morphine drip.
According to the Census Bureau's 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States, the average American spends 9.6 hours a day inhaling media -- watching television, using computers, listening to the radio, going to the movies and/or reading. We as a nation apparently spend on average two months of every year just watching TV. Perhaps it's not crazy given that, according to the 2006 International Television and Video Almanac, we have 392 national cable channels to choose from and 40,000 DVD titles. And let's not forget the 175,000 books published annually, or the hundreds of movies released each year and the billions of Internet pages.
And still we want more -- according to the census data, America's per capita pop culture consumption is expected to increase from 3,333 hours a year in 2000 to 3,518 hours in 2007. As Brian Graden, president of entertainment for the MTV Networks Music Group, notes, "the more media that's consumed, the more it drives overall usage. It's like an echo chamber effect."
Twenty years ago, people worried about the New Yorkers stacking up in their bathrooms, but now there's also 100 hours of TV stacked up in their TiVo and a long line of desired videos in the Netflix cue as well. Contemplating media overload, savvy media consumers and social scientists have even more weighty concerns: Is the glut of entertainment polarizing our country, killing our attention spans and turning us into a nation of fickle dilettantes?
On a personal level, how do people cope with the technoworld of infinite choice, particularly those who need to keep ahead of the curve?
Roy Lee, known around town as Hollywood's go-to guy for the latest sensation from Asia, manages to keep current by giving up sleep. He's down to a mere three to four hours a night. The 37-year-old producer on such fare as "The Grudge" and "The Departed," Lee watches a movie every night from 10 to midnight as he works out on the elliptical trainer, then spends the next three hours online trolling through websites, reading entertainment bloggers such as Jeffrey Wells and David Poland or searching cinema sites such as Twitchfilm.com or Cinematical.com for hints of what's cool in Seoul, Hong Kong and Taipei, Taiwan.
For books and music, he relies on Amazon.com's list of top sellers. The only medium that flummoxes him is TV -- "I feel overwhelmed by the amount of TV. I try to limit myself to one show that I watch."
His friend, and rival, producer J.C. Spink stays abreast by reading 150 publications a month -- including newspapers, magazines and the trades; other established publications such as Entertainment Weekly, his bible for TV; and more obscure publications such as Fortean Times and Mental Floss, which has "some great trivia. You find out how frozen dinners came into existence."
He researches his options further by surfing online, hunting for "niche people who like the same things you like, and looking at their recommendations." He reads the self-anointed commentators on IMDB, and if he likes what they say, looks for their other posts. Spinks, who no longer buys CDs but simply downloads songs, hunts for "peer-to-peer tastemakers." Recently, he has been relying on Cornerstone, a CD/video sampler compiled by a marketing group that he mysteriously began getting every month because they'd deemed the 33-year-old producer of "A History of Violence" a tastemaker. "I get to hear and see 60 new bands every month. I usually end up downloading songs by a bunch of them," he says.
DreamWorks chief executive Stacey Snider, who's renowned among intimates for having seemingly read every book possible and seen every cool movie worth seeing, says she winnows her choices by relying on peer recommendations -- but only from friends and acquaintances. "It's a group of people -- they turn me on to stuff and I turn them on to stuff. We know our tastes are comparable," she says.
For instance, "Tim and Eric" -- i.e. Working Title Films producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner ("United 93" and "Pride & Prejudice") -- "made me the anglophile I am today" and turned her on to people such as director Edgar Wright and comic Ricky Gervais. Another friend sends her CD samplers a couple of times a year. Sometimes it's not even people she knows well. "There's a guy at UTA, Charlie Ferraro -- we barely know each other but every couple of months he calls and says 'I have your reading assignment.' "
Snider admits she'd rather stay home and watch "some weird movie" than go out to dinner. "I've always been a homebody that way. I was that way when I was single, so I can't lay it on my kids."
YouTube? I don't
OF course, media glut becomes more manageable if one filters the information or even deletes whole categories of options. (I'm older than 18. I don't YouTube. I don't game. I don't practice any of the quasi-entertainment options such as IMing or texting.)
Producer Michael London admits: "I've always been a media junkie. I've always been vulnerable to disappearing down the rabbit hole. When the rabbit hole has gotten bigger and deeper through the Internet, for people like me who multitask, it's created a real danger. It creates a perfect meltdown scenario to people who are vulnerable to trying to do too much at once. You can sit in your office, and you can be having a phone conversation while reading Variety online, and answering your e-mail, and having an IM chat with somebody. It sounds crazy, but it's not an exaggeration."
Ever hear a suspicious pause at the other end of the phone? As if whomever you're talking to just missed what you said?
"The thing that suffers," London says, "is your focus and your creativity. It limits the time you have for sitting and watching a movie, or reading a script, or thinking about an idea. The things that suffer and get thrown away are the things that require the most sustained thought." That's why London has been "trying in my own humble way to disconnect a little bit. You have to force yourself to go cold turkey. I literally tried to listen through an entire album a couple of weeks ago, to try to get back to that space where you listen to things as a whole instead of just sample. We live in a culture where everyone is sampling."
London, known for his taste after having produced such cool indie gems as "Sideways" and "Thirteen," is actually on the cutting edge of another emerging trend -- what USC professor Jeffrey Cole calls the "e-nuff already" phenomenon.
Cole, the director of the Annenberg School for Communication's Center for the Digital Future, has been conducting a long-term longitudinal study on the effects of Internet use and computers on families. Surveying 2,000 households for the last six years, the researchers discovered that some of the "most advanced users of technology were saying, 'I'm tired of always being tethered to other people. Before I go to sleep I have to answer all my e-mail.' It's really a function of being overwhelmed by the amount of things technology makes available."
The e-nuff-already types are "mostly people who've been online six years or more. The real e-nuff-already people -- the most extreme are the ones with BlackBerrys -- but everybody feels the pangs. There's just too darn much.
"People talk about wanting choice, but they don't want too much choice," says Cole. "That comes out of psychology. In 1975, when there were in most markets seven TV stations, 90% of the viewing was on three channels -- the three networks. Twenty years later, most people had well over 100 channels, but 90% of the viewing was on seven channels. You give people more choice, and they don't use that much more of it. On the Internet, 90% of Internet use is on 15 websites."
Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz, who specializes in psychology and economics, goes even further, and says that "when you give people too many options and too many variables, it paralyzes them and they end up choosing none, or if they do choose, they end up dissatisfied with their choice because they're sure they could have done better with all those options. Given the chance, people will choose lots of options and then suffer for it."
Schwartz, author of the book "The Paradox of Choice," cites research done by questionnaires as well as a study of how people choose their 401(k) plans and adds, "It's a relatively new thing that there is this explosion of choice everywhere. People have to learn how to handle it, and at the time, people are not handling it well."
Schwartz believes that the abundance of choice leads to a certain polarization in American society. "What worries me about the media explosion is it's killing any common culture because no two people experience the same stuff at the same time. No one is ever forced to encounter an idea they disagree with. Some people watch O'Reilly. Some watch 'The Daily Show.' Both represent the pure view. All you do is talk to people who agree with you. That's not good for democracy."
Trend spotter Marian Salzman, the New York-based chief marketing officer for ad agency JWT Worldwide and coauthor of the new book "Next Now: Trends for the Future," says that the media glut is making people "emotionally overloaded. There are too many things pulling on our heartstrings, and we're becoming emotionally desensitized. People cease choosing and become superficial grazers." Consumers are responding to the smorgasbord by becoming what Salzman calls "brand sluts."
"We're becoming promiscuous about our choices, and we'll go to wherever we get immediate emotional gratification," says Salzman, who bases her interpretation on an analysis of market research (an online panel of 80,000 American households), focus groups and journalistic trends.
MTV's Graden, whose company exhaustively researches its target youth demo, offers a different view. "I do think it's a sampling culture, but sampling can drive a deeper attachment," he says. He cites, for example, MTV's reality show "Laguna Beach." "The more media we put across on different platforms, the more personal attachment is fueled on behalf of the consumers -- they feel like it's more personally their show, and that will drive ratings up."
Managing the overload
DESPITE the all-out cultural bombardment, no one suggests that Americans want to revert to a Soviet-style cultural dictatorship or even revert to the pastoral media climate of the 1950s. "What everybody wants is control," says Cole. "They want to know the good stuff."
Indeed, what appears to be rising almost as fast as new ways to stream media are lists, filters, any handy-dandy system to cut through the dross.
Professor Larry Gross, director of USC's Annenberg School of Communication, says that for the last 60 years, since the advent of TV, "research showed the key ingredient in media influence is other people. The term 'opinion leader' came into use. It refers to people who on the whole pay attention to the media and who to a large extent are influencing their friends." In other words, most people didn't rely on the media directly but on chosen intermediaries who deciphered it all for them.
Today, those intermediaries are often not even human, as many of the big online retailers have adopted the Big Brotherish tactic of tracking each consumer's buying patterns and making recommendations based on what similar buyers already bought. (My son recently looked online inside the book "Electronics for Dummies," and so Amazon breezily recommended he check out "Robot Builder's Bonanza." Not bad. Still, it's creepy knowing how much of my family's personal information is being stored by corporate America.)
For those who actually make the media that's consumed, all this choice can be a good thing -- in that it keeps creators from getting lazy.
"Our ability to sell junk is diminishing," says movie producer Nathan Kahane ("Stranger Than Fiction," "The Grudge"). "Up until the last 24 months, you could market almost anything and make it look slick. They seem to be smelling rats more these days. The information spreads through the blogosphere and MySpace. That's the best thing in the world for the movie business. Any time a businessman has to take a look at their product and make it better in order to have consumers means the product is going to get better."
That said, choice makes life a lot more stressful for content providers. "I don't feel at all overwhelmed," says Kahane, 34, who has a 4-month-old and is spending more time at home, where his wife controls the clicker. "I feel overwhelmed as someone who claims to be creating entertainment to have a renewed sense of the massively changing tastes and how different younger people want to be entertained. Where are they going to take entertainment over the next 10 to 15 years? I think the truthful answer is we have no idea."
For my family, our adventure without TV lasted six weeks. We read more books. We talked more. We felt more virtuous. My 3-year-old even gave up "Dora the Explorer." But then we began to long for what we were missing: new episodes of "The Wire," the new season of "America's Next Top Model," the latest electronic news on the war in Iraq.
Finally, we broke down, hired a van, journeyed to Costco. Reader, we bought a 42-inch Sony LCD. And when the installers arrived to hang it on our wall, one thing became abundantly clear -- this TV wasn't big enough.