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Can too much choice be a bad thing?

By Tenzin Murry

After Disney’s announcement of its extensive slate of upcoming projects, Tenzin Murry explores this explosion of entertainment.

2020 was a year defined by being locked down and indoors. A recent Ofcom study confirmed that many people had little else to do besides binge their way through box-sets in Netflix’s back-catalogue. Viewing figures for streaming services were up 71% compared to 2019, with 12m new sign-ups for platforms like Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime in the UK alone. Such an unprecedented surge in viewing demand couldn’t possibly be met with a commensurate supply, especially with TV and film productions grinding to a standstill for significant portions of the year. Now that we watch more content than ever, content fatigue has started to set in. But is the problem not enough choice, or too much? Or maybe the content itself is just getting worse?

Content fatigue describes the feeling of nothing good being on. It’s that familiar moment of being paralysed by choice, when you’d rather suffer whichever dull suggestion is flung your way first than have to choose for yourself. When you open Netflix’s front page and can’t find the energy to hunt through the reams of terrible cheaply-made recommended shows, shows you’ve already watched twice over, or stuff that just looks like too much effort to start, to find the right thing to watch. It’s the feeling that consuming content has become a chore, and it has streaming companies worried. Though Netflix’s subscription model does a good job of retaining users, Netflix no longer has a streaming monopoly; new platforms are hungry for their share of the market, and jaded users will migrate to new platforms if the grass looks greener. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough overall content, but that the sheer amount of poor quality or unsuitable content on each platform is so great that starting a new show is a risk — you’re potentially about to sink valuable hours into a show with an ending worse than Game of Thrones. The safer option is to rewatch favourites, or stick to a handful of popular or suitable shows — I frequently hear friends complain that “there’s nothing good”, despite the millions of hours of content available, and end up re-watching The Office for the nth time. The end result is fatigue — and streaming companies are already trying to implement solutions. 

In France, Netflix has started testing a new form of content delivery, in which programming is scheduled linearly, much like traditional TV. Rather than users having to hunt down shows themselves, they can kick back and watch whatever Netflix decides to play from their catalogue of shows. For some, this removes all of the freedom that makes on-demand streaming so popular. But others feel quite literally spoilt for choice, and long for the days of stress-free TV scheduling when you could passively watch whatever was on. Most streaming services already employ a pseudo-programming strategy anyway, with algorithms nudging people towards particular shows despite the thousands of choices available. But with more content being added to an ever-growing back-catalogue, more choice typically demands more effort on the viewer’s part. 

Even before streaming skyrocketed during 2020, a significant portion of users had already started to feel overwhelmed – not only by the number of programmes available to watch, but by the number of services, and the increasingly difficult task of hunting down where to watch certain programmes. For UK viewers, it can often be anybody’s guess whether the show they want to watch is on Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Britbox, Now TV, or any of the countless other streaming platforms available. The explosion of video-based social media apps like TikTok appears to show that instantly digestible micro-content suits the easily distracted younger demographics better. If a new series looks like it demands too much from our addled attention spans, some may skip it entirely. Quibi was a short-lived attempt to be the best of both worlds, delivering “high-quality content on a short-form platform”. It folded within half a year. Perhaps people aren’t tired of the content but of the services themselves, which is why streaming services are now each competing to be definitive — to each have enough content to meet every kind of user’s needs.

According to Disney, the solution appears to be “more content, more choice” if the recent announcement to investors, which confirmed that 20 new Disney+ shows set in the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universes, is anything to go by. Testing the patience and loyalty of fanbases, even die-hard fans of these content universes have started to speak out, complaining that Disney has gone too far. But Disney senses that the age of cinematic blockbusters is ending, and combined with the powerful convenience of streaming, their new model is an attempt to create specific content for specific demographics, rather than generic content for general audiences. New shows like She-Hulk are not aimed at the same audience as Armor Wars, for example. For die-hard fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the idea that they wouldn’t necessarily enjoy every show within a “content universe” is an alien concept. But fans will have to adapt: responsible for around 40% of the US box office, Disney doesn’t just sense which way the wind is blowing — it creates the wind. The new content model isn’t attempting to create TV tentpoles like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or Stranger Things, but niche pockets of content to suit different demographics. With enough content in each pocket, the idea is that there should be something for everyone.

All of this reflects the data-driven model of content creation. Rather than creating shows that bring people together and embrace the things we have in common, streaming companies treat us the same way that social media companies and advertisers do — as data points and demographic market segments to be catered to. So maybe the reason that people are starting to get tired of the content available to them isn’t just because of the choices they have, but the choices they don’t. The age of streaming hasn’t democratised content, it has dictated it. We are told what to watch by the very people who create the content. But people aren’t tuning out just yet — shows like Netflix’s The Crown and Disney+’s The Mandalorian continue to break viewing records, as the subscriber count for all platforms continues to tick upwards. So unless users start leaving platforms en masse, streaming services will only change the kind of content they create and how it is delivered as and when they need to. Content fatigue is a new challenge — though users might adjust and content providers might innovate, it won’t be going away anytime soon.


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