Are Our Parents Right?

The streaming business is oversaturated with too many shows that prioritize media buzz over content, leading to a decrease in the quality of television.

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My dad recently read an article in The New York Times titled “The 50 Best TV Shows on Netflix Right Now.” As soon as he mentioned it, I knew what was coming: the when-I-was-your-age talk. My dad’s version goes, “When I was your age, we ordered TV Guide and waited all week for one episode of a show! You kids have no idea.” I used to tune out his messages because I enjoyed the ability to watch whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. But lately, I’ve been paying more attention to our current media, and I find myself agreeing with him. The streaming business is oversaturated with too many shows that prioritize media buzz over content, resulting in a decrease in the quality of television.

Since streaming has taken off, many people have gained access to large amounts of television at their fingertips—Netflix has over 1,800 shows, and Max has over 1,300. With new content coming to streaming services every week, it seems impossible for it all to be worthwhile. Some are outright bad, with stilted writing and overused tropes, and yet each show is given a spotlight for months ahead of its release. Critics praise shows, claiming they can’t wait to watch them; trendy brands such as American Eagle and H&M release clothing lines; trailers and teasers tantalize viewers on social media, promising them it’ll be the new hottest thing. We are told as consumers that watching certain shows will make us more aware of pop culture, ensuring that we have something to say to fit into society’s trends.

 The media perpetuates the idea that everyone absolutely needs to view every new show. This is a problem because people tend to trust their favorite news websites and influencers and believe much of what they say. Viewers ignore the fact that people who promote a show are very likely paid and thus have skewed opinions. This means that people watch shows based on the false opinion of what they believe to be a reputable source. When television companies pay news websites and influencers to do this, they dishonestly try to control the outcomes and reviews their shows get, taking advantage of viewers’ minds.

While these advertising tactics are as old as television itself, they are now everywhere we look: on social media, on the subway, and even in reputable newspapers such as The New York Times. Everything is subtly telling us to go watch the latest series. The problem is, even with such an influx of choices when watching TV, it often feels like we’re watching the same show, just with a different setting and actors. Television today has run out of original ideas. So many shows have similar premises, with dull storylines and limp writing. Reboots are also an issue. The most popular series created within the past few years have been either spin-offs or reboots of old shows. Shows like And Just Like That…, How I Met Your Father, Fuller House, Gossip Girl (2021), and Bel-Air have had high viewing numbers and media coverage mainly because they provoke nostalgia in older audiences who love the originals, not due to incredible plots and character arcs. This phenomenon may be explained by how difficult it is to write original storylines and characters that compel an audience. Instead, television companies resort to a safer choice: to produce reboots that automatically ensure an audience and media buzz. 

Many shows also seem to be carbon copies of each other, with the same overused tropes and one-dimensional characters. These series pay attention to tropes that have been successful on TV in the past and replicate them, simply changing the scenery and actors. A perfect example of this is the recent Netflix original My Life With the Walter Boys. It’s about a recently orphaned girl who falls into a love triangle with two brothers. Sound familiar? It’s been done before by the popular show The Vampire Diaries and the Amazon Prime drama series The Summer I Turned Pretty. Studios have become careless while writing their shows and expect their audiences not to pay attention to thinly veiled attempts to pass off their plot as original. Because of this, an emphasis is placed on merchandising and marketing, especially by using social media influencers. Television companies are now trying to convince people to watch certain shows not based on whether they are good or not but by telling them that this influencer loved it and that they need this monogrammed water bottle emblazoned with the show’s name. By consumerizing a show to an extreme, the television companies hope that viewers won’t realize how little unique substance the show has to make it worth their time.

Media consumers, lured in by flashy advertisements and trailers, are made to constantly feel a need to stay up to date on current trends and entertainment. Though social media buzz can initially motivate us to start binge-watching a show, once we start binge-watching it, watching the show transforms into a mundane chore. For instance, my mom and I watched Gilmore Girls together during quarantine. Every Friday night, we would sit on the couch and watch an episode. I looked forward to it all week, and I never got bored of it for two years. Recently, though, I tried to rewatch the entire show and found myself bored and listless, annoyed with the characters’ antics. The same was true with other shows, even ones I hadn’t watched before. I picked up and dropped at least 10 shows in 2023.

Streaming services have transformed our outlook on TV shows to something we should binge-watch, and TV shows simply aren’t meant to be binged. The goal of watching a show shouldn’t be to finish it and move on to something else quickly, but something to actually savor and enjoy. Series were first created with the intention that they would air once a week, at the same time every week. When shows were on air, people were more selective because TV was considered more of a privilege that they dedicated special time to. Naturally, viewers didn’t want to waste their time on a show they didn’t like or that was too similar to one they had already watched. People couldn’t come home and watch six episodes of Friends straight away; they had to wait to watch an episode each Thursday at 7:00 p.m. sharp. Networks paid for timeblocks and thus were more tasteful about what to broadcast. This meant better writing, acting, character arcs, and plots. Television companies were held accountable for their audience viewership, making the quality of television higher. 

This is why people rewatch old shows and why networks keep trying to pitch reboots. Older series tend to be better quality and are, therefore, more loved. Shows such as I Love Lucy, Seinfeld, Mad Men, Bewitched, and Sex and the City are more original than those today. TV is supposed to be fun and relaxing, and to keep it that way, it is important that streaming services and television companies tone down the amount of advertisement—whether it be direct or indirect—per show. The merchandise, the ads, and the social media campaigns all add clutter and stress to what should be a calm, happy hobby for people to unwind with. Television companies place so much focus on getting as much capital and viewership as possible that the clamor to watch every new series has increased, and yet the quality of each series has decreased. Television companies should focus more on the quality of each show they make, not how much publicity they can get. If people were not bombarded every day with BuzzFeed articles, X posts, and promotional TikToks, they would have a clearer outlook on what they want to watch. This would put more pressure on television companies and streaming networks to create shows with intricate plots, unique scripts, and multilayered characters. 

So much of our culture is based around television. To save it from becoming corporate and fake like so much else today, the heart of television must be reinforced. By taking more care in each show’s writing and story, television companies will rely less on bombarding viewers with ads and consumerism. In this way, television can return to being an enjoyable pastime, uncluttered by the need to binge shows. We should save television from continuing down this fast-paced, anxious road and return it to how it was supposed to be—entertaining, pleasant, a break from our stressful lives, and a way to relax.