Voices: Steven Spielberg told me that our endless choice of TV and films is a good thing – but is it really?

·4-min read

I interviewed Steven Spielberg last year, which is a sentence I hope to use many more times until something more interesting happens in my life or I’m simply forced to review the widening chasm of time from when it happened.

During the chat, which I’m sure he just as quickly forgot, as I imprinted the memory deep into my very soul we talked about the endless proliferation of choice that is now laid out before media consumers.

His take was: “Today there’s no excuse to not be able to inundate yourself in popular culture and classic culture. You can watch the entire way the world works!” A nice positive outlook from a nice positive man, but is that really what we’re doing?

Despite our sizeable age difference, both Spielberg’s and my own formative years share some common ground. He grew up in Arizona in the 1950s, with just three TV networks and a film channel to occupy his adolescent genius brain. I grew up in the 1990s, with basic terrestrial TV to occupy my adolescent simple one. Pre-1997, this meant having just four channels to hop between, unless fancier friends invited you round to watch Celebrity Deathmatch beamed in through their exotic Sky dishes.

The internet was still in its infancy and, with such a narrow field of TV to choose from, we were accustomed to content both new and old, side by side in the running order.

Shows such as Dad’s Army and Only Fools And Horses re-emerged in primetime slots, alongside more up-to-date family pleasers such as Noel’s House Party and Surprise Surprise. After that, you’d crack on some Jonathan Creek, followed by The Vicar of Dibley, and you had yourself an evening.

It was all a bit single gear, perhaps, but a generational bridge, nonetheless. Wholesome, inoffensive, unifying content, made for everyone, watched by everyone.

They might not have indulged in as much Brass Eye or Partridge, but I could be sure my grandparents would be tuning in to Big Break, just as I was, along with my neighbours, and their neighbours, and probably the cast of Neighbours, or at least Kylie, who I think had moved over by then.

The older stuff made me feel connected to my parents, because they’d been watching the same thing 20 years earlier. The new stuff made me feel connected to everyone.

Fast forward two decades and the Bifröst has broken. Google tells me there are now more than 200 streaming services around the world, offering 817,000 TV shows to pick from. In 2021, a study commissioned by Now found that Britons spend more than 100 days of their lives deciding what to watch. The average week sees 24 minutes and 24 seconds spent deciding on TV shows and 24 minutes 93 seconds selecting films.

The industry’s solution to the choice paralysis? To give you exactly what you want, faster. The explosion of video-based social media apps such as TikTok have shown the easily distracted young to be hungry for instantly digestible micro-content. They want it quick, short and specific, and it seems the TV world is listening.

Disney, one of the biggest hitters in the market, has made no secret of plans to forgo the catch-alls and instead produce specific content for specific demographics: data-driven content creation, bypassing TV tentpoles such as Line of Duty, Stranger Things or The Crown, in favour of niche pockets of content, offering something for everyone.

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It signals a shift in how audiences are being perceived by streamers: no longer as captivated viewers, but as “data points” in an ever-evolving algorithm. I can’t help but feel that, just as this stat-driven thinking has polarised our politics, it will do the same to our culture too.

We’re not immersing ourselves in both the new and the old, as Spielberg hoped – but being funnelled into cages, full of things we like right now.

We all want to feel like we belong to something, to find our tribe – it’s why we follow sports teams or connect with people who like the same films as we do. This feels even more special when it’s something personal that the masses might not have embraced. But when everyone is watching different things at different times, we lose the cultural touchstone that TV used to be. The icebreaker, the water-cooler moment, the reason to catch up, or that much needed context for your uncle’s jokes. People seem less familiar, less relatable, even strange.

With narrowing content comes narrowed tastes and perhaps narrowed minds, and not even Noel’s House Party can bring us back from that.