Television, Netflix, and Consuming Content

07 July, 2018

The thing that makes me feel most crazy these days is the response I get from people when I tell them that I do not watch any television shows. Horror, shock, confusion, frustration, agitation. The conversation, if in a group, usually continues about whatever show–usually on Netflix–is being discussed, and I either sit by idly for the topic to change or just walk away.

Today I read Inside the Binge Factory, a New York Magazine article about Netflix. Perhaps I should have abstained from reading about something from which I abstain, but curiosity and a desire to better understand (in order to better explain) why I do not subscribe to the service compelled me. There was uneasiness throughout the article, but the closing especially stood out:

Sarandos also points out that while Netflix users are spending more time watching the service than ever, it’s still “a very small portion” of the overall amount of time we spend on our TVs and cell phones. “There’s tons of growth in user screen time on Netflix,” he says. “If you think about the addressable market for Netflix as being paid TV households, it’s relatively small. Everyone with a phone has a screen and access to the internet. That is our addressable market. The world’s taste, and the world’s time, is what we’re after.” [Emphasis Added]

I recently read The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu and it was dispiriting to see the degree to which advertising and media designed to grab our attention has been steadily encroaching the space around us, from newspapers, to radio, to televisions, to personal computers (and the web), to, for now, our phones. There is a camp that says “just log off,” but that elides the degree to which all kinds of businesses are mortally inclined to have us spend all of our time using their products. What else could explain the malicious intimations found within this story about “Silicon Valley insiders… holding the industry accountable on privacy and addiction”:

[Jim] Steyer, also 62, doesn’t intimidate easily. In 2012, he had written a book called “Talking Back to Facebook,” which was focused on the impact of social media on children (he has four of his own). The book cautioned parents about an array of potential harms, including tech addiction, depression, eating disorders, cyberbullying and privacy, which it called “a hugely important and explosive issue.” It cited the results of a study, released by Consumer Reports the prior year, that found 7.5 million children younger than 13 years old were on Facebook, despite federal law designed to keep them off until that age.

The book struck a nerve at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Ms. Sandberg requested a meeting to discuss the book and other issues Common Sense was pressing. She asked that Mr. Steyer be excluded, recalls Bill Price, retired co-founder of private-equity firm TPG Capital and board chair at the time. At the meeting, Mr. Price recalls, Ms. Sandberg and Facebook Vice President Elliot Shrage conveyed that the book and the nonprofit were causing problems for Facebook “and they could cause problems too.” [Emphasis added]

They weren’t happy with the title of Mr. Steyer’s book, Mr. Price says, or some of Common Sense’s policy stands. Mr. Shrage “in particular tried to say ‘we’re big and important in Silicon Valley… Maybe you don’t want to be on the board of Common Sense if you want to be doing business in Silicon Valley,” Mr. Price recalls.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Sandberg confirmed she was at the meeting. Mr. Schrage relayed through a spokeswoman that he recalled the meeting from six years ago and the conversation about the book, but he denies making the comments attributed to him or making any threatening statements.

But back to Netflix: I would like to believe that there exists a more reasonable world where Netflix need not be so ravenous in getting us to consume its offerings as to stake a claim on “the world’s time.” But this is not our world: in ours, time spent watching provides data as to what kind of shows Netflix should support next, because they want us hooked. This is a world where companies like Apple and Instagram are introducing tools to curb our addictive phone use. I would like to believe that in this more reasonable world we would not need this because we wouldn’t drive people to the point of needing help to step away.

Does it need to be this way? Netflix doesn’t really have this motivation to harvest all of our time. Barring product placements and other similar arrangements, Netflix relies on user subscriptions rather than advertising. So it shouldn’t matter to Netflix how much time people actually spend on their product as long as they pay their subscription fees.

My concern is that people already spend too much time using Netflix. This is a concern informed by my conversations about all the different great television shows out there, and how there’s simply too many to actually watch all of them, try as people might. It’s a concern informed by the trope about multi-tasking while watching Netflix, because multi-tasking is a myth. It’s a concern that Netflix is a “Weapon of Mass Distraction.”

There is, of course, a part of me that doesn’t want to be an inveterate cynic. (Being cynical so often elicits eye rolls from my friends.) I don’t think that my not watching television means no one should ever watch television. I don’t think it’s a catastrophe that people enjoy relaxing and unwinding by watching some television. But when one or two episodes turns into three, four, or five, or an entire season, or when our culture celebrates Peak TV without identifying it as a source of anxiety for people, not to mention a source of prolific idleness, something has to give. Focus and attention is at stake, and with that, our agency.

The last thing I think this world needs is Netflix taking up more screen time, and taking up more of the world’s time. That is a scary thought. I don’t think it’s romantic or admirable. It’s Silicon Valley bombast. (It’s a threat.) And it’s not an outlier: CEO Reed Hastings gloats that Netflix “actually competes with sleep… and we’re winning!”

I think all of us need to examine how we are spending our time, and what our own motivations are, instead of having our motivations, not to mention taste–which could be a whole other essay, or even a book–informed by a company that just wants our money.