The Joy Of Broadcast Media Vs. The Paradox Of Choice

The rise of streaming services on the Internet was a revolutionary shift when it came to the world of media. No more would content be pumped in to homes in a one-way fashion, broadcast by major conglomerates and government-run organizations. Instead, individuals would be free to hunt for content suiting their own desires on an all-you-can-watch basis.

It’s led to a paradigm shift in the way we consume media. However, it’s also led to immense frustration thanks to the overwhelming amount of content on offer.  Let’s take a look at why that is, and some creative ways you can get around the problem.

The Paradox of Choice

Many find the masses of content on streaming services to be overwhelming to choose from. Credit: author screenshot

Traditionally, when it came to media, there were two major arms of delivery: broadcast, and home media. One might listen to the radio, or flick on the TV, or alternatively, spin up a record, or select a movie to watch on tape. If none of those options  sufficed, one might take a walk down to the local video store to rent something more appealing.

Fundamentally, it was an era in which choices were limited. There were a handful of TV stations to choose from, and if nothing good was on, you could go as far as finding something watchable on tape or going without. Many will remember afternoons and evenings spent watching reruns or a Friday night movie that had been on a million times before. Some shows went as far as becoming legends for their seemingly endless replay, from The Simpsons to M*A*S*H. 

As the Internet grew, though, the game started to change. Torrent websites and streaming services came along, offering up the sum total of the world’s cultural output for free, or for a nominal cost for those averse to piracy. Suddenly when it came to choosing a movie to watch, one wasn’t limited to the five or so films on at the local cinema, nor what was left on the shelves at the local video rental. Instead, virtually any movie, from the invention of the format, could be yours to watch at a moment’s notice.

With so many options on the table, many of us find it harder to choose. It’s an idea popularly known as the Paradox of Choice, a term popularized by US psychologist Barry Schwartz in 2004. When our options are limited to a select few, choice is easy. They can quickly be compared and ranked and an ideal option chosen.

Add thousands of choices to the pile, and the job escalates in complexity to the point of becoming overwhelming. With so many different choices to contrast and compare, finding the mythical right choice becomes practically impossible.

Anyone who’s ever jumped on a streaming service to hunt for something to watch  will be familiar with the paralyzing feeling. Rows of colored icons streaming past, barely-recognizable titles fluttering by. Each scroll seeking for a simple standout option, but only revealing yet more to choose from. The pressure builds with the knowledge that making a bad choice is surely inexcusable when virtually everything ever filmed is an option. Whether you’re looking for a movie to watch or you just want to catch an old episode of Cheers out of the hundreds that were made, the sheer volume of choices is overwhelming.

Respite is at Hand

Builds like the Simpsons TV replicate the broadcast television experience, where your only choice is to watch what’s on, or not. credit: HAD article

There are some workarounds, of course. One such method is to remember that picking a movie is not a life-or-death choice (usually), and that merely finding something good enough will usually suffice. The streaming world also comes with a secondary benefit in that there’s no need for commitment. If the film is unwatchably bad, you can always pick another.

If it’s a more regular issue you face, however, you might consider the value in giving up choice entirely. Many hackers have yearned for the days when they could flip on the TV and catch an episode of their favorite show, without having to pick from the entire back catalogue themselves. Builds like the Simpsons TV stack a golden collection of episodes on a Raspberry Pi. The played back continually at random, akin to the 24-hour marathons popular on cable TV back in the day. For an even more authentic build, you can use an RF modulator to pump out the video as if it’s coming in on its very own TV channel.

Date Night Movies lets two people input a movie choice each, and presents a series of middle-ground options. Credit: screenshot

Services exist to help you choose movies to watch, too. Sites like the Random Movie Picker and PickAMovieForMe ask a series of simple questions before making suggestions on what to watch. Netflix Roulette does much the same, with a focus on titles actually available on that specific service. Meanwhile, Date Night Movies takes two suggestions and offers up a series of titles that meet somewhere in the middle.

Overall, there’s some value to be had in these systems that take entire movie catalogues and boil them down to a handful of options for us to choose from. Often, when we’re picking something to watch, we’re looking to relax and unwind. At these moments, wading through innumerable options is unpleasant, and having a way to cut that down is a great thing.

The benefit of understanding the Paradox of Choice is that you can recognize the situation, and react accordingly. Whether employing psychological techniques to ease your selection, or enlisting tools to help take the choice out of your hands, it’s much easier to deal with when you’ve got a strategy for the job. Happy watching!

60 thoughts on “The Joy Of Broadcast Media Vs. The Paradox Of Choice

    1. It also affects those with no taste, who will literally watch anything.

      Picking from thousands of titles is easy because 99% of everything is generally shite. It’s rather the problem that despite having thousands of titles to pick from, there’s still nothing good on Netflix, or you’ve seen it already. Who wants to watch the same Korean rom-com with slight variation under yet another title? Who wants to watch ten different shows about teenages with mental health problems or autism? Who wants to watch Seinfeld again?

      1. I think the problem is that when streaming services try to predict customer preference and select what they will carry, they automatically lock on to the type of person who would happily eat the same sandwich for breakfast for the rest of their lives. If they like BLT today, they will like BLT tomorrow. The prediction becomes an automated version of the McNamara fallacy: what you can’t measure doesn’t exist.

        So, all the streaming services start to repeat the same kinds of shows with the same kinds of plots for the same kinds of people, which nobody really is – and that’s why there’s never anything good to watch on the internet.

        1. That is one thing I’d say I’m not seeing in streaming service or TV production houses – there are always going to be some similar more formulaic or repetitive things (like soap opera and home-improvement shows), and the inevitable remake of something that really didn’t need it (like all the Animated Disney stuff) made because you know there is a market – the safe but usually mediocre result bet.

          But there have been so many more intriguing and out there ideas being produced with high production value in recent years as well, partly because it really attracts folks to your platform to have some more novel content.

          1. To be fair, when I read comic books in the late sixties, they were often doing “alternative world” stories, so Superman could be different for one issue

      1. Well, since streaming services are trying to generate artificial scarcity by limiting the number of titles that are available at any given time, it is still the case that most of what’s out there isn’t actually “on” any service except pirate bay.

  1. I remember shopping for a Gitzo tripod. There are so many choices and options (and many poorly described I might add). I finally threw up my hands and purchased a different brand. I later came to own a Gitzo when I was offered one at a fire sale price. Some manufacturers would do well to offer just a few top quality items.

    As for media — bleh! I have better things to do than to spend my time with that sort of entertainment. My entertainment is a good reverse engineering project. Or learning verilog and FPGAs — that sort of thing. Life is short.

    1. “As for media — bleh! I have better things to do than to spend my time with that sort of entertainment.”

      Such as following Hackaday!

  2. My only issue is when there’s something specific I want to watch, only to find that it’s no longer offered on the service I pay for (Hulu, for example) and is locked behind the paywall of another service I don’t want to pay for. (I’m looking at you, Amazon Prime)

      1. I hardly ever use it.
        I take it from your comment that you see it used more often than you are comfortable with and you want me to somehow know this ahead of time and modify my use of language to suit your preferences?

    1. The same thing with dictionaries or Leonard Maltin’s movie book. You’d surf those before the web, each entry made you think of something else to check. And soon you’d forget what you started looking for.

    2. Lol, I’ve spent some time watching trailers. Sometimes, being entertained by the trailers themselves I no longer feel like watching a full fledged movie, shut it all off.

        1. That’s the point of the “fast show” genre. Someone observed that the common comedy film has all the funny bits already in the trailer and made a sketch show based on just those bits.

  3. I’ve often wondered when we’ll reach “entertainment escape velocity”, so that there will always be something interesting to watch for one’s entire life.

    Assuming 2 hours 5 days a week, over a 40 year adult life leads to 20,000 hours of time available for TV watching in a human lifetime. Use different numbers for different assumptions, add in childhood watching, and 40,000 hours is probably an upper limit.

    How long until we get 40,000 hours of captivating media?

    Game of Thrones was pretty captivating when it first came out, and it’s available to watch right now. Running for 7 seasons, if each season is 13 episodes (not true for GOT, but useful for back-of-envelope calculations), that’s about 100 hours of entertainment for a single show.

    The Marvel cinematic universe is around 25 movies right now, and almost all of them are an interesting watch. Add Wandavision and Hawkeye, and altogether you’ve got another 100 hours of entertainment.

    Depending on the assumptions, we’re probably at 50% of what’s needed for a lifetime of entertainment right now, and that number is growing. I’m currently running through the entire set of Hitchcock films in a directory on my hard drive, and the complete collection of movies that star Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer, both sets of which I watch each movie only once and then delete it. I’m nowhere near completion.

    At some point we will reach the point where there’s always interesting entertainment, and people won’t spend any free time interacting with others, or self-improvement hobbies, or making things.

    And as a corollary, will this be bad for civilization?

    1. “At some point we will reach the point where there’s always interesting entertainment, and people won’t spend any free time interacting with others, or self-improvement hobbies, or making things.”

      Too busy to continue the species.

    2. The question is how long does it take for you to get bored of a theme? Would you watch slight variations of Game of Thrones for the rest of your life?

      The next question is, how many different themes are there to choose from and how may of those will you like? When you get tired of spaghetti westerns, will you switch on to space opera?

      In the end, even with infinite amount of material, you may find yourself without anything to watch, because what you would like to watch is so incredibly niche that nobody thought to make it.

        1. ‘Fraid I’m with Mark+S on this one…

          Marvel movies have never really done it for me, a few I’d call worth watching, and some of the actors performances are very impressive, but the plots are frequently so stupendously shallow and entirely predictable – the movie just can not redeemed by the special effects alone, which while very good are often not all that unique – you get spectacular destruction of cities etc in almost all movies with any action type sequences it seems now, not to mention how much more immersive and involved similar CGI type moments are in some VIdeogames…

          I’m sure if you are an avid comic book fan from childhood its the proverbial, but to me most of them are just a visual spectical I can happily leave – and one I know won’t age all that well – the mind blowing special effects of yesterday are the cheap low budget shots of tomorrow, so you really need a great deal more than just that. (though I suspect current CGI will age a bit better as display tech is starting to match our eye/brain image processing capabilities)

          Which is for me where the whole concept falls down, the ‘best’ movies of the 1960’s-1980’s are largely rendered unwatchable to a modern audience if they have any leaning towards the ‘realistic’ special effects – sometimes maybe its quaintly interesting, or never took itself too serious and charming for it. But vast arrays of what was once considered good entertainment falls massively flat to modern eyes, and that is assuming the content isn’t also now unpalatable on the grindstone of political correctness..

    3. This point will happen and has probably already happened for some people. You have to take into account the “rewatch factor” : Often, good movies or series can be rewatched and still be entertaining a number of times, because you will forgot a movie, even if you remember the synopsis.

      Civilization won’t be affected at this point : That’s not because I can spend half my life watching movies and series that I will, far from it : Movies, except for some aficionados, is one of the default pastimes. People don’t find hobbies, or go out because “there is nothing to watch”, it’s quite the contrary.

  4. Paradox of Choice? We called it the Greek Diner Menu Syndrome long before 2004. You New Yorkers know what I’m talking about. Especially after midnight.

  5. “With so many options on the table, many of us find it harder to choose. It’s an idea popularly known as the Paradox of Choice, a term popularized by US psychologist Barry Schwartz in 2004. When our options are limited to a select few, choice is easy. They can quickly be compared and ranked and an ideal option chosen”

    The Gnome vs KDE war back during the spatial browser days. Modern version is Apple “wall-garden” vs Burger King “have it your way”.

    “As the Internet grew, though, the game started to change. Torrent websites and streaming services came along, offering up the sum total of the world’s cultural output for free, or for a nominal cost for those averse to piracy. ”

    Not just choice, but availability of niche channels, like the drying paint channel. 24/7 paint drying.

  6. The part of Schwartz’s book that I thought was the most profound wasn’t the observation that we struggle with lots of choices, but his analysis of behavior, based on a lot of studies, that people tend to either establish a threshold of quality and choose the first thing that exceeds that threshold, or spend a lot of time searching for an optimal choice among the entire set of presented choices, and then going on to look at how those two choice strategies play out. What the studies he discussed had found was that the optimizers consistently made better choices than the thresholders, but were much less happy with their choices and with their lives in general, because some combination of their personality and the knowledge of all the choices that they’d looked at and not chosen made them regret the loss of those choices more than their satisfaction with the choice they’d made. He then went on to spend some time talking about how we could organize a choice-making process to both improve the quality of the choices the thresholders make, and reduce the opportunity loss regret that optimizers feel, and one of the ways he suggested was a process of reducing the number of choices by selectivity of what we look at.

    1. That and shows that start out so well then get a really crappy last season that somewhat ruins everything…

      I’d love to see another Firefly story or two, even if its after the movie there is a great cast and interesting universe.

  7. The wife and kids usually drive the TV in my house. If I am in charge I end up picking an old favorite rather than bother with something new. (Cue Nicholas Cage’s sage advice about “something new” in the Croods here.) Perhaps my grocery store produce selection technique can be applied here as well? I grab two random bags of spinach, throw the worst one back, grab a 3rd random bag and repeat, repeat again. Some quick calcs show that with just three successive comparisons, half the time my chosen bag will be in the top 15% of all the available spinach bags, and 95% of the time will yield something in the top 50%. And as a final safety net against the fear of a bad choice, I can always apply the minimum quality threshold to the final choice and decide that all the spinach looks bad today, I’ll just buy some potato chips instead.

  8. I have the opposite problem, due to BBC cuts they seem to have reduced their high quantity science documentary output; nothing else holds a candle to them on their best day. Thanks for that, bloody tories.

    1. Or what also sometimes happens, is that when you have a network that runs a successful station, places a bid and manages to buy a rival network, authorities say: “Hey, you control too many stations now, sell one!”

      They pick their oldest, and so a station you’ve been watching/listening to for years, goes up on the market. Sometimes the buyer sees what they’ve got and they let it continue largely as it was, or it gets cannibalised for its broadcast license and equipment.

      We’re facing this in Brisbane with one local music radio station being purchased by a sports network, and set to become a 24/7 gabfest about sport. This isn’t about radio ratings, the station being cannibalised was actually a highly successful AM station that was competing against newer FM stations and still winning many ratings awards. The new network just wanted the broadcast license.

      Most radio stations in the Brisbane area are part of bigger networks operated out of Sydney and Melbourne; and many of these do their music selections centrally — so they play what appeals to Sydney/Melbourne audiences. However, music charts are actually quite regional, and there are a number of songs that were popular here in Brisbane and nowhere else. Some of these same songs are not on Spotify/YouTube/etc, not available on CD.

      Net result: less to listen to, and 75 years of a city’s history up in smoke.

      Sometimes the bean counters don’t realise what they’re getting rid of when they pick up their pens.

      1. Sounds like something that could (have been) be stopped with sensible licensing – don’t make the things fungible, they get the licence provided they serve their local community in certain specified ways, and any material change by the company risks having the licence revoked and granted to an alternative provider who will follow the set conditions.

  9. Also keep in mind that smaller operations who do not generate “popular media” suffer due to the streaming now available. Where I work we get a few cents per month from every subscriber to cable. Not the big numbers like Disney or Viacom. When subscriptions went down, we got hit hard. Since we don’t play advertising, we’re doing whatever we can to survive in the current marketplace. (Successfully so far). So while choice is a great thing, and market share will save successful popular program creators to some extent…other information based programming will suffer because of it.

    Funding should be set aside to allow for the media that is useful, but not popular to exist and be created. If we just go for Entertainment value, we’re going to finally make the phrase “boob tube” become a reality.

    1. >Funding should be set aside to allow for the media that is useful, but not popular to exist and be created.

      That’s usually the point of national broadcasting companies that are funded by tax or television license fees.

      However, people who think that the public broadcasts should serve a general interest are never actually neutral in what they believe the general interest is. Such as they are, the programming becomes “influenced” by partisans, and that becomes a big problem in terms of justifying the public spending or the existence of the broadcast in the first place.

  10. Pay for only one service at a time and for only one month at a time. Watch everything it has to offer, then move on to the next. service.
    By the time you circle round, they’ll have more than a month of new content and typically offer you one month free just to return. We take every other month off and it really improves the content when we return. Somehow mass consumption makes even good media feel worse.

  11. There are a few websites that have popped up recently to sate your channel surfing desires. The one I’ve found and enjoy is called . They have blocks of old ephemera, music and movie clips, concert footage, foreign and local commercials, and all that jazz. They send you random videos to watch 24/7.

    Sadly, after a few hours of letting it play in the background, the same things pop up over and over again. It’s fun if you want a little oddball variety.

  12. The demise of the local broadcast industry is really complex. It’s not significantly different from the demise of local newspapers, but it’s a death by a thousand cuts. There are the broadcast distribution rights (ASCAP, SECAC and BMI, movie rights fees,etc.) and broadcast content and technology regulations that are huge disadvantages against broadcasting. Numerous other disadvantages including the cable companies providing a monopoly of signal distribution even with free over the air signals. The biggest death knell is the consolidation of monopolistic ownership and programming within local markets that have destroyed the content and driven the viewers and listeners away. The corporations buy all the local stations, fire all the local news and content employees and fill their news programming with happytalk and fillers which might qualify for America’s funniest videos instead of local news content. Don’t get me started on the over compressed audio processing, distortion and jock in the box automation and national political/hate programming on the radio stations. They’ve nationalized advertising and sometimes don’t even bother to sell local ads anymore.
    Local content broadcasters are fighting an imbalanced battle. I’m not sure if anything can be done. It’s probably over. ATSC 3.0 is probably too little too late. It’s a corporate race to the bottom. Hope they make enough money on the way down before they completely destroy it.

  13. I hadn’t watched OTA broadcast tv for nearly 20 years. I grew up on the cusp of watching whatever happened to be on TV and being able to pirate most anything. So I’ve experienced both worlds. I recently connected the old antenna that was in my homes attic to my TV, and scanned all of the local channels. I found that OTA TV is still a nice option.

    There is something very nice about just turning on the TV and watching whatever the heck is on, after a long day of work. Sometimes for me it’s a joy to just disconnect and check out mentally with some mindless TV. Having to pick out and pay close attention to a show almost seems like a chore, when you’re mentally worn out at the end of a hard day.

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