Starting Your TV/Video Diet

Why is watching TV still considered a guilty pleasure, like eating junk food, even in this golden age of television? The “Media Diet” movement of the last couple of years takes online news, apps, and information websites seriously. Industry luminaries report, “Yes, I read The Atlantic online, Longreads, RealClear, and Zite…” and then add sheepishly, “Oh yes, and I also watch 'True Detective.'” Like, I eat my vegetables, but at the end the day I also eat a box of Oreos. 



To “eat well” usually means enjoying a nutritious and varied diet, with a little haute cuisine and comfort food thrown in. There is a lot of good TV out there and man or woman cannot live on spinach, kale and quinoa alone. But do we “watch well”? More than just indulging guilty pleasures?

I wouldn’t say I watch well. Once I finish binging on one show, I immediately want to know what can I binge on next. TV is habit-driven. We talk about my shows, getting my fix, what we are addicted to. I have the same short list of programs recorded on my DVR that I had two years ago. I am not going to exhort you to watch less TV/video in 2015 or not to binge on anything. I am just going to suggest we try to seek more balanced diets: the same principles of the Media Diet applied to a video-specific diet. We require balance and moderation in our food diets (with an encouragement to try something new every now and again, like Ethiopian cuisine or pigeon). The same holds true for video, and we need more tools to do that.

How is your VIDEO DIET going?

It used to be important to be well-read. That did not mean just having read all of (binged on) Dickens. It meant having read broadly: the great books, important new authors, many cultures, periods, and genres. Being well-read broadened the mind, increased civility, meant you were able to hold your own in a salon or at dinner with diverse groups of people. It unlocked cultural touchstones. It improved your own ability to write and express yourself.

We are not expected to be "well-watched"  when it comes to video, just to have seen the latest [fill in the blank], to avoid “Oh, you don’t watch [fill in the blank]?” No reasons are given to watch anything except:

1. [Fill in the blank] is REALLY GOOD.

2. Because you watched [fill in the blank], you might like [fill in the other blank].

3. Everyone is watching [fill in the blank]. That includes 15 minute of famers, friends, circles, ratings, Rotten Tomatoes, etc.

6. Nostalgia.

That is like saying “Because you eat spinach, you might like kale. Kale is REALLY GOOD. Everyone is eating kale. Remember the salad we had at that restaurant in Big Sur? That was kale!” There are of course other reasons to eat kale having to do with nutrition, food groups, complementing the taste of other foods, recipes, etc. But we are obsessed with ephemera, not the eternal. Olives, parmigiano reggiano, red wine, bruschetta, and Tuscan bread are eternals. What are their equivalents in TV/video? We still tend to look over our shoulders at another table and say, “I’ll have what they are having.”

When cable television was first rolling out, people used to say there were getting cable in order to get Discovery for the kids. (As if "Shark Week" was "Moby Dick"). That is changing with the unbundling of TV/video. Not just the unbundling of cable packages (see recent HBO, CBS, and Dish Network announcements) but the unbundling of networks: the all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants of television. We want to watch programs, not networks or “cable.”

If we are going to cook for ourselves, we need diets and recipes. Dieting is an over $60billion per year business in the U.S. alone. We can do better than that for TV. Somewhere between the playlist, the syllabus, and the video equivalents of Harold Bloom’s "How to Read and Why," we can put together recipes for killer nights of video viewing that go well beyond what’s on now, that yield higher life satisfaction quotients.

3 comments about "Starting Your TV/Video Diet".
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  1. Martin Focazio from EPAM Systems, February 10, 2015 at 9:26 a.m.

    Interesting that you connect being "well read" and "well watched" - but I think that the "Cognitive Surplus" (to borrow from Clay Shirky) that is absorbed by television is finally being applied to other things besides passive viewing of television all night long. Don't get me wrong - I love a great show and watch intently, but in my house at least, the TV goes on with the intent of watching a particular TV show or movie, and then when that show or movie is over, it goes off. Total TV on-time in the house is under 4 hours a week, and we absolutely enjoy the shows we watch, but (to bring your food analogy into it) they are like meals we cook. We don't just sit at the table stuffing our face with plate after plate of good food. There's always good food around, like there's always good television and movies. For about 50 years, the concept of free, ambient, ad-supported television took a central place in the attention of society unlike anything that ever came before it, including religion. But this centrality is waning and now TV is becoming just another thing to do - and that's OK, because there's so much more to see and do in our increasingly connected world; TV will remain an important part of it, but will drift away from its dominance of our off time. The "higher life satisfaction quotient" may include a little TV, but it certainly does not look like an 8 hour playlist of great shows every night.

  2. Theodore May from Media Industry Consultant, February 10, 2015 at 4:45 p.m.

    Thanks, Martin. I agree. And your viewing habits sound very healthy (as in all things, moderation has its virtues). We used to talk about the creation of "must see TV" or "appointment viewing" as the brass ring for programmers. To your point, as more and more video content competes for potentially fewer viewing hours, I think the question is how does a programmer position its content as essential to a healthy diet of viewing (like providing iron or vitamin E) so that you make the informed election to include that content in your family's 4 hours per week? That way you are optimizing quality, quantity, and variety. I think that is an opportunity for both program guides and ultimately programmers.

  3. Martin Focazio from EPAM Systems, February 10, 2015 at 4:58 p.m.

    Ted -
    It's a "crisis" I call "reaching viewer zero." Over here where I work, we design and build and mange the whole media delivery ecosystem, from "server to screen" and there's this part in the middle of the flow of content along that journey - the part after "Catalog" and before "Promote" - where we often hook in personalization engines, and there's this whole challenge of "seeding" a system when a new show enters the catalog - a show that nobody has seen, maybe there's not a whole bunch of promotion behind it, and it's not even had a chance to generate social buzz yet. But we want "viewer zero" to watch - and recommend - the show. Ultimately, tastemakers will matter as much as they do know. Maybe we'll have incentivized screenings. Maybe not. Maybe TV will be like Spotify - with 4 Million songs that have never - not even once - been played, but 100 songs that get played 4 million times a day. I don't like that vision, but it's a simple supply and demand problem. There's infinite supply, and diminishing demand. A flight to quality might be bad for new entrants. Interesting times.

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