Ambient TV, Comfort Watching, and Focus

With down time around the holidays, I’ve been thinking about an older idea called “ambient TV,” taken from Kyle Chayka’s piece in The New Yorker on “ambient television.” Using Emily in Paris as an example, along with scores of cooking and home improvement shows, Chayka compares ambient television to ambient music, quoting composer Brian Eno, that it is “as ignorable as it is interesting.”

Ambient television, like its music counterpart, is meant to move between background and foreground seamlessly. As we scroll through Twitter or write an e-mail, Emily’s prosaic journey continues on screen. Then, our eyes look up again, taking in the Haussmannian boulevards and cafe conversations. We can figure out what happened in our mental absence and expect a calming, comfortable view when we look up. We don’t get lost, and the drama is largely inconsequential. But unlike something “boring,” it still entertains. As Chayka writes:

Ambient denotes something that you don’t have to pay attention to in order to enjoy but which is still seductive enough to be compelling if you choose to do so momentarily. Like gentle New Age soundscapes, “Emily in Paris” is soothing, slow, and relatively monotonous, the dramatic moments too predetermined to really be dramatic.

Analyzing Emily in Paris and other shows, Chayka remarks on their placidity and homogeneity. Seamless edits, drifting montages, voice-overs, B-roll, and other editing techniques smooth over discord and difference, lulling us into a frictionless drift, as we move our eyes and attention between screens, tasks, and distraction.

While this peace can be helpful, especially in today’s fraught reality, ambient TV may also white-wash diversity and simplify complexity. As Chayka writes, “any diversity or discordance would disrupt the smooth, lulling surface.” Like frictionless interfaces, frinctionless television can conceal its politics and purpose behind a slick, mesmeric palette. Moreover, what may be familiar or comfortable for some may be alien and unfamiliar to others. This gets amplified by social media, letting us drift back into the lull through Instagram and YouTube. Chayka puts it this way:

There’s a danger that, through algorithmic digital platforms, we can stay ensconced in our soothing aesthetic bubbles. When the season of “Dream Home Makeover” finishes on Netflix, it continues on Studio McGee’s Instagram account, where they’ve been posting clips that might as well be television outtakes, though they’re self-produced: more soft sofas, light fabrics, and blond children.

This comfortable bubble of ambience reminded me of another type of television: comforting, familiar television. This generally takes the form of re-watching the same series, episodes, or movies, as Sandra Gonzales writes about from CNN. But in a broader sense, it tends to prioritize easy-to-watch content.

As David McRaney pointed out a while ago in You Are Not So Smart, we tend to procrastinate more involved activities, including pleasurable ones, choosing to watch a familiar, light movie over the latest high-tension drama or cinematic classic. As McRaney writes, “With Netflix, the choice of what to watch right now and what to watch later is like candy bars versus carrot sticks. When you are planning ahead, your better angels point to the nourishing choices, but in the moment you go for what tastes good.” Especially after a long day, Creepshow feels easier than Schindler’s List. You know that you should watch the important movie, but like trying to diet, the more fruitful fare drops in the queue, buried beneath the easy, comfortable, and familiar.

Since the pandemic lockdowns, I’ve dipped back into older, familiar movies and shows especially. So have many people, as Travis Andrews points out in his article. He notes a few possible reasons for this, while stressing that no single one may cause rewatching: being stuck at home, the stress of the news, memorable characters or lines, movies with a personal connection (like a family standby or childhood favorite), nostalgia, etc.

For me, rewatching has been a comfort food, and like the ambient television example, I often put something on while I do something else. For whatever reason some of my go-tos have been Silence of the Lambs, the Tremors series, and John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy.” I’ve also been rewatching Twin Peaks (again) and find myself returning to the same cooking videos and AVGN classics on YouTube.

I don’t know what draws me to this media, though it seems that different things are at work. Silence of the Lambs definitely differs from Tremors–and both differ from cooking videos. And to be fair, I have managed to watch some of the more serious movies and shows, but it’s a different mindset. It feels like having to get dressed up and head to the office, while comfort media is more like staying cozy at home, being able to laugh a bit louder than usual.

I don’t think it’s just laziness or goblin-mode antics. On the negative, it is a different form of doom scrolling, especially when it comes to social media content. Call it escapist scrolling or “just one more” scrolling, emphasizing the dark patterns that media can use to keep us locked in. While one or two cooking videos are great, they can quickly suck up two or more hours.

Next, ambient TV can also be negative, but in a different way. Joseph Pieper argues that many modern forms of leisure are actually still in the working sphere, giving us time to rest to work more. Ambient television is an extension of this. We’re still plugged into all sorts of spheres, from social media, to work, to distant social arrangements, while watching a show that is merely playing, getting our ambient attention.

What unites these two negatives is the mindless and shallow (as opposed to mindful and intentional) means of approaching media. While we don’t need to become Zen monks, I think their more mindful and intentional approaches to life make a lot of sense. For example, an acquaintance I know found herself getting into reorganizing and decluttering, often doing a task–like reorganizing craft supplies–in front of a specific show, like Marie Kondo or British Bakeoff, creating a calming past-time.

Similarly, when it comes to consuming some more nostalgic or shallow media, I think the difference between comfort food and junk food is intention, mindfulness, and (unfortunately) frequency. Watching an easy-to-follow guilty pleasure should not be guilty, especially given the stressful times we live in. But like anything, trying new things and challenging ourselves, even with the media we consume, can give us unique experiences, perspectives, and conversations.

HBO’s Chernobyl is a great example of that. Not the lightest watch, but it has given me images, quotes, and ideas that I have thought about since it came out. Even White Lotus, with its sometimes shallow characters and wild debauchery has made some smart (in all senses of the word) observations.

With this in mind, I’m going to try to watch something “important” or “interesting” or “serious” once a week. I don’t really have a specific criteria or list to follow, but I imagine I can find titles fairly easily. Who knows; I may even reflect on it here.

[Featured image: “Television” by Medhi is licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

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