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movies TV

Never unintentional: my brain on linear TV vs. Netflix

<!––>We typically spend the late-year holidays visiting my in-law’s home in Pennsylvania. It’s a welcome downshift from our usual, frantic pace. On many of these visits, I’ve watched more traditional, linear-programmed cable TV in one long weekend than I have in the rest of the year combined.

There’s a warm, zombified state that settles in after so watching many Property Brothers episodes. My body falls into sleepy hibernation, lying motionless on the couch for hours on end. My metabolism enters ‘slow burn’ mode, expecting a steady stream of pumpkin pie and sugar cookies. And my brain quiets, barely registering when one hour of bad TV bleeds into the next. The day rolls by.

However, in more recent holiday seasons, these cable TV binges have grown less frequent, for at least two reasons. First, we have a daughter now, and she prefers that her parents be play partners, rather than comatose couch potatoes.

Another reason I don’t binge on cable quite as often? The internet has fundamentally changed my relationship to content, and it’s hard to go back. I’ve grown accustomed to programming my own playlists, and I’ve grown resistant to “choice-less” consumption.

This change isn’t just about Netflix versus cable. Terrestrial radio’s bland playlists and brash commercials also turn me off; give me my podcasts instead. The satellite TV feeds offered on my recent cross-country flights didn’t tempt me in the slightest. I turned to my phone instead, which was chock-full of favorite vlogs, TV series, and movies. Even magazines bore me; why read fluffed-up filler, when I can hand-pick the best of the web?

There’s a huge difference in mindset for these two consumption methods. One, the traditional model, makes me passive and powerless. Someone else steers the ship, and I get sucked into its current. Linear TV puts me at the mercy of the least common denominator; I unintentionally wind up watching formulaic, overproduced reality TV.

In contrast, the internet makes content consumption more purposeful. I watch shows that I actually want to watch. I gravitate to shows with great writing and production values: content that delights me, thrills me, or makes me think. And when a show is bad? I’m just engaged enough that I don’t keep watching mindlessly. Instead I’ll switch and watch watch something else. Or I’ll turn off the gadgets and (gasp!) actually head outside.

(I still bring along the cookies.) ■

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internet TV Uncategorized

Streaming TV wins—except on Thanksgiving.

Like many millennials, I don’t subscribe to traditional TV. Cable companies overcharge for an inferior, viewer-hostile product. Once you get used to streaming, you can’t go back to TV’s linear air times, limited programming options, and endless sponsor breaks.

… Except during Thanksgiving. Combine extra vacation time with an extended family’s varied tastes, and streaming has some downsides. Its chief appeal—the ability to choose—suddenly becomes a burden. The tribe gathers around TV’s warm, glowing, warming glow, then spends twenty frustrating minutes browsing Netflix. You scroll hopelessly past shows recommended for you—but not for Grandma Marigold. If someone proposes a program, stubborn vetoes and frustrated groans arise from all corners. Some family members play the passive-aggressive card (“Oh, that movie? Well, I can always go in the other room”). Eventually, the feuding factions brook a compromise: a movie everyone can stomach but no one really likes.


Contrast that to cable, where there are fewer disagreements and no tough decisions. The entire family knows that the shows are trash. Everyone resigns themselves to low-quality entertainment: faux-“reality” TV, bastardized movie edits, over-sponsored sports.

There’s something nice about traditional TV’s limitations. One hour flows seamlessly into the next—often, another episode of the same show. Your brain shuts down, and you table your worries: the dead-end job, the mortgage payment, your lonely social life. TV doesn’t make you feel good, exactly, but it drowns out the bad thoughts. A wired, buzzy sensation sets in; it’s—not happiness, exactly, but close. Combine TV with a steady intake of holiday leftovers, and the experience is kind of wonderful.

Kind of. Eventually, your Thanksgiving bender ends, and the hangover sets in. Your head feels hollow. Your eyes ache. You look back in horror at what you’ve done (“I wasted four days watching Property Brothers?!”). Ashamed, you swear never to binge on TV ever again.

But don’t kid yourself. Christmas break is coming, and that 72-hour Mythbusters marathon ain’t gonna watch itself.