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Commercials aren’t killing network TV. Streaming services just have better shows

Back in the day — say, five or six years ago — I used to read surveys The Nielsen Company and others issued that purported to quantify the amount of time the average American watched television. The numbers always seemed a bit astounding: more than five hours a day, even more for certain demographic groups, much more for retired people.

Even though I have spent decades writing about the television business, I rarely watched anywhere near that much myself. (I was not a TV critic, those poor souls condemned, now more than ever, to try to watch and evaluate just about everything.) As a full-time employed person, five-plus hours seemed almost impossible to rack up in front of a TV set. If you spent most of your hours in an office working, that really only left time between dinner and bed for viewing.

But, for sure, I watched a lot of television — just “selectively.”

That was, of course, earlier in this disruptive TV decade. The sweeping invasion of new forms of viewing options, led by Netflix, has utterly sacked conventional television, leaving only a few pillars (football, primarily) of traditional TV watching to remain standing.

Like so many people who now pay for more than one streaming service (I am up to four, and that’s without the new horde now being unleashed, like Disney+, AT&T’s HBO Max, Apple TV+ and NBC’s Peacock), my viewing habits have become not merely changed but radicalized.

The other day, I checked online to see what the four broadcast-network prime-time schedules looked like this season. I used to know them by heart, because I had to: that was basically the ballgame in the TV business for most of its history. This examination confirmed that, other than sports, I not only watched very little of the network offerings, I was also genuinely unfamiliar with a number of them (“Almost Family?”) and surprised some were still on the air. (“Blacklist,” which I used to watch, is still going? So is “How to Get Away with Murder,” which I didn’t?)

I admire some of the network shows — “The Good Place” on NBC, a product of the great Michael Schur; “Black-ish;” and a few others — but the idea of watching individual episodes once a week at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night has become almost as alien a concept as watching a pitcher complete a game in the World Series. (For those keeping score at home, Johnny Cueto of Kansas City was last to do it, in 2015.)

Way back in that year I did watch some shows week-to-week: “Game of Thrones” comes to mind. So does season two of “Fargo,” as well as the final season of “Mad Men.”

Notably, all of those were on cable channels. That was where selectivity was taking me four years ago.

Right now, I just do not feel drawn to whatever a broadcast network is rolling out in prime time each week. I feel sort of bad about it, the way I feel for drivers who still own taxi medallions in New York City. What they are doing — in the age of Uber and streaming — is good, honest work but seems too much of the past. Commercials are certainly a reason, though the principle of tolerating them for the sake of not having to pay 10 bucks a month has enduring appeal. But it’s more than that.

Putting on mass-appeal shows now seems a near impossible task when there are so many more intriguing shows being offered. In some cases, shows unveiled weekly are still a draw if good enough, but they tend to be mostly on HBO (part of the WarnerMedia family) — “Barry,” “Succession” etc. Though almost always in those cases I catch up with a batch of episodes all at once.

Overall, that means selectivity is gravitating heavily toward streaming shows, even though the hunt for something worthwhile across the congested landscape of Netflix and its brethren can often be akin to Springsteen’s frustration when he only had 57 channels to peruse.

I observed with interest that Netflix is reportedly now conducting an experiment with Android phones that would allow viewers to speed up episodes 1.5 times, presumably to get you through the dull parts faster. It seems a sign of recognition at Netflix that there’s a lot of ho-hum stuff on offer there too.

I do check out the Netflix queue first on many nights when the urge to find some entertainment strikes me. Some great material appears for sure: “Mindhunter,” “Stranger Things” (first season); “The Crown.” But it’s all a bit like haphazard urban development: a lot of blind alleys where you give up and go back to where you started.

One of the best things about services like Netflix and Amazon is the quality of the imports. I have found a lot of quirky, appealing stuff that way. I stumbled into “Fleabag” on Amazon in its first season — wow. Same with “Happy Valley” and “Shtisel” and “Call My Agent” on Netflix — the last two not even in English. I was blown away by the German series “Babylon Berlin,” also on Netflix. And the French series “Spiral” on Hulu. I don’t see how anything a broadcast network could conceive of would be as gripping (and binge-worthy) as shows like that — and their audiences would likely be put off a bit by the Hebrew, French and German.

A lot of my viewing choices now are determined by finding series that my wife and I can enjoy together. An hour at dinner with a lighter show like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” or “Doc Martin” on Amazon, or the new season of “The Crown” is ideal — especially because there are no commercials.

But let’s be real: Nothing in the current crop of television, comedy or drama or reality show, can compete effectively with the stupefying, non-fiction epic now on display nearly 24 hours a day in Washington. If you enjoy historical drama as much as I do — basically my favorite form — nothing any writer could conjure up, on broadcast, cable or streaming outlets — could pull you away from the news channels where a completely original, compelling saga is unfolding in real time.

It is remarkable how frequently people following the daily news revelations make reference to how closely it seems to mirror fictional plotting and characters.

But that’s because it is playing like Shakespeare without the aristocratic characters — and the poetry. It’s all the buffoonish guys we were supposed to laugh at elevated to the royal court, and carrying nuclear weapons instead of swords.

What else would I want to watch?



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