Let me begin by saying, I love the variety of programming that’s available through online video databases like YouTube and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. I spend much of my free time watching old shows on YouTube, clips from films, original content by YouTubers, and news reports on the same platform. Equally, I love watching the series being rebroadcast by Netflix like The West Wing as well as their own programming, shows that either were originally produced by Netflix like The Crown, those that have been bought by Netflix like The Last Kingdom and others that are being distributed by Netflix like Versailles and Au Service de la France. When new series are released on Prime Video, I’ll spend a good deal of time on that app, watching some of my favourite programmes of the last few years, especially my big three on that platform The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Man in the High Castle, and The Grand Tour.
These services offer us something that before was only imaginable in our dreams: the ability to have near total control over the types of programmes that we watch, and when we watch them. When I lived in England, I loved using the BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, and All4 apps for my British television. And while the quality of the programming is on par with what I enjoyed a decade ago when my DVR was filled with shows from PBS, History International, and BBC America, the quantity has significantly risen beyond the scope of what my free time can handle.
While today we may have more choice in what we can watch, I wonder whether we are truly fortunate to have so much choice. I’ve probably spent hours scrolling through YouTube, Netflix, and Prime Video looking for new things to watch when my usual diet become stale, hours that I could have spent doing other things. Moreover, I’ve found that my happiest days of TV watching come not from a day spent enjoying the offerings on Netflix or YouTube but rather on the regular old TV networks that have set schedules. Traditionally, one of my favourite Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon and evening traditions has been to keep the TV on PBS the entire time and enjoy the same old programs, the US-based politics and talk shows, the British sitcoms, the occasional broadcast of the BBC World News, and the PBS NewsHour. Lately, having signed on to SlingTV to get access to their French package, I’ve extended that PBS trend to include channels like TV5 Monde and its arts and culture affiliate, TV5 Monde Style. When I lived in England, I did much the same thing, albeit with my TV largely tuned to BBC Four in the evenings for their hours-worth of history documentaries.
I find comfort in abdicating the authority to choose what I watch over to someone in a TV control centre, whether an hours walk away as was the case in London or halfway across the continent in New York or Los Angeles as often is the case here in the US. I wouldn’t mind if we went back to the old practice of the TV broadcasters closing down for the night at 22:00 or 23:00 each evening. It’d give us all time to be cognizant of each other, to talk amongst ourselves, to have proper interactions, something that we lose when our attention is trained constantly upon the screens in front of us.
In an episode in the third season of Versailles, Louis XIV is asked if he loves being king, “after all, you can have anything you desire.” Louis looks off into space, contemplating both the overwhelming power that comes with having absolute say and how he still wants more in his life. I often feel a similar feeling. Sure, I enjoy watching these shows; yes I love getting to know the characters and can even begin to feel as though I can relate to them, but after a while I know that I need to have a break, even if I don’t feel that I have the will to force myself away from that screen.
It can be hard to remember in the moment the ways that I can make myself feel happier, especially after watching a TV screen or a tablet for hours on end. I’ve always loved reading, and when I can break through the lights and noise of the screen, I’ll go back to my books, go back to reading. Yet like the false spirits that surrounded Elijah, in grand gestures that seemed overwhelming, the Truth that made him happiest came in the softest of whispers. With all these new media of entertainment it can be hard to remember those things that make us happiest, that fulfil our lives the best. Yet they’re still there, waiting for us to remember them.
In my case, I have been able to control my screen time and streaming habits, limiting myself on weekdays to only a few hours in the evening, dependent upon each day’s individual schedule. I know what makes me happy and living my life entirely through the abundance of shows available online is just one factor of happiness. I need my books, and the people and animals around me to keep me happy.
I try to live by the golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated; when I look over at my dog, often laying near me either bored out of her mind or simply fast asleep as I watch TV, I try to think of ways that I can make the day more fun for her, more enjoyable for her. Likewise, I try to take time away from the videos, programmes, and films that I love to watch to sit back and daydream, to think out stories as I have for as long as I can remember. It’s from these stories, these dreams that I’ve come up with my own books, plays, and poems. If I spend all my free time watching YouTube, Netflix, or Amazon Prime, I won’t have enough time to dream, and that above all else would be a disservice to my mental health, and to my ability to work in a career that I love, to write, to tell stories, and to live my life surrounded by the people that I love.