New Writing: Streaming ambient TV
My essay for the New Yorker on automatic feeds of empty shows.
My latest piece for The New Yorker explores another artifact of algorithmic feeds — expensive, highly produced TV shows that seem to have less and less content. They’re backgrounds for looking at your phone.
“Emily in Paris” and the Rise of Ambient TV — New Yorker
How it happened: A lot of my writing, for better or worse, comes from me experiencing something or having a subtle feeling that won’t go away and then trying to explain it in words, hoping that other people are also getting the same brainworm that I am. In this case, I watched a lot of Netflix. Specifically the kind of shows that I talk about in the piece: vapid escapist romcoms, food documentaries, and drama-less reality franchises. The amazing thing about these shows is that they seem designed to fill time and not much else — they bemuse your eye and your brain just enough to provide distraction but not enough to stop you from refreshing Twitter.
As examples built up, I gave the genre a label in my head. It was B-roll TV, or ambient TV, and I looked for more and more of it. I wanted this essay to describe the genre and give it some background: It’s not about taking something down with a critical pan (though “Emily in Paris” might deserve it) but taking things seriously, really thinking about why shows like this exist. A lot of tweets were like “why do you hate EIP!?” but I don’t, I actually love it, I watched all of it in two days.
There’s a deeper history of ambient TV that I wish I had fleshed out in the piece, after the soap operas I cite. The term “ambient” comes from Brian Eno in the ‘70s (see my book chapter three for more on that) but the academic Anna McCarthy also wrote a book called “Ambient Television” in 2001 that describes TV’s omnipresence as background.
The difference I’m describing in this piece is ambient TV’s evolution in the streaming era. Streaming wasn’t supposed to be a passive viewer experience: we pick what we want to watch, when we want to watch it. But the profusion of ambient shows turn streaming into a passive experience like cable, where we just leave it on and pay attention to it or not. Netflix produces ambient content intentionally, because that’s how some people use its service.
It also strikes me that the business model makes sense for streaming and ambient TV. Cable commercials were only worth buying if viewers were actually paying attention to the screen, absorbing the marketing message. Show content was designed to encourage that attention. But Netflix’s subscription fees mean less pressure on attention; you just need to keep subscribing, and you’ll definitely do that if you rely on it for ambient background.
The TikTok essay: The response to my essay on TikTok in my previous newsletter “How Do You Describe TikTok?” has been really nice. I loved all of the comments and replies and I’m responding to them one by one. The essay got over 17,000 views on Substack and was picked up by places like Longform (not to mention a bunch of new email subscribers). It makes me want to write and think more for this newsletter space, specifically.
Independent publishing is in vogue at the moment, given the newsletter boom. I don’t think newsletters solve much for the wider finances of the media industry but I think they do allow writers to work in ways that traditional publications don’t necessarily encourage. It’s not just newsletters; I was really pushed to publish that TikTok essay myself after reading Daisy Alioto’s “What Is Lifestyle?” which is both an essay and a website, an idea injected wholesale into the world, for anyone to see.
If anything I think popular newsletters show that readers would like different types of content from already established websites and editors, connecting to individual writerly voices.
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