Millennials might not remember Bruce Springsteen’s seminal 1992 work, “57 Channels and Nothing On.” Whether or not you think you remember it, it’s worth a view because it’s so incredibly 90s-tastic. Seriously, it’s right up there with the Fresh Prince title sequence as an encapsulation of bad 1990s design decisions. Don’t believe me?
Back then, 57 channels sounded like a lot, too. Today you’re likely to have about 500 actual channels of live TV (more if you have DIRECTV) plus every streaming app and every on-demand video site that you’re willing to admit to watching. Put it all together and it must total over 500,000.
So, why does it seem like there’s nothing on sometimes?
It’s called “analysis paralysis” and it boils down to, when there are too many choices, you can never decide. When you know that there has to be something perfect for you to watch, you’re never going to stop searching. On the other hand, if you’re in a hotel room with 6 channels of grainy standard definition, somehow one of those channels will always suck you in. You just surrender to it because you know there’s nothing better out there.
The other factor in play is “market fragmentation.” In the past, TV networks would try to cast a wide net, try to produce programs that would appeal to a large number of people. With so many options, content providers are free to create programs with laser-focus. A perfect example is Netflix’s Altered Carbon, which appeals to people who liked Blade Runner but preferred a more traditional buddy-cop aesthetic. This sort of program would never have been made in 1992, when Roseanne and Home Improvement competed for top honors in the comedy category.
Analysis paralysis may also mean that “nostalgia TV” will eventually be doomed. Depending on your generation, you may look back fondly at Gunsmoke, Marcus Welby, Happy Days, Cheers, Friends, or Grey’s Anatomy. Those shows all reached a mass audience and provided a shared experience that is rare today. (An exception: This is Us, which seems to appeal to everyone but me.) When enough people remember something fondly it has a tendency to resurface, as we’re seeing now with the TV reboots of Roseanne and Will&Grace. Future generations may not share enough experience to become nostalgic. I mean, would you sit back and watch old reruns of American Idol? Of Young Sheldon? See what I mean?
The real solution to the problem of “500,000 channels and nothing on” is to put the remote down and spend a few minutes watching. Maybe the thing that seemed stupid at first will actually suck you in.