I'm Not Saying That This New Yorker Piece About Netflix & Ambient TV Is The Dumbest Thing You'll Read This Week. But...

Post by: Rick Ellis 17 November, 2020

There is a strain of media criticism that falls into the category of "this is my experience & I'm making a wide-ranging conclusion about this subject based on me." Now if you've spent any time at all at AllYourScreens, you know that I am all too familiar with that style of journalism. I inject myself into stories with an ease that I'm sure is indicative of some sort of untreated psychological problem. Still, I do try and remember that while it's okay to share my opinion, I am by no means an average media consumer or for that matter, a baseline for any sort of media consumption.

The problem with writing a piece around your own personal take is that you can simultaneously be making a good point while at the same time replowing ground others have tackled for a long time. And that is certainly with the case with "Emily In Paris And The Rise Of Ambient TV," a piece by Kyle Chayka that appears in the latest edition of The New Yorker.

The premise of the piece is that Netflix is focusing on creating television that is meant to be casually viewed and Chayka offers up this observation as if it was an idea that is new and unexpected:

In this and other recent programming, Netflix is pioneering a genre that I’ve come to think of as ambient television. It’s “as ignorable as it is interesting,” as the musician Brian Eno wrote, when he coined the term “ambient music” in the liner notes to his 1978 album “Ambient 1: Music for Airports,” a wash of slow melodic synth compositions. 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. Nothing bad ever happens to our heroine for long. The earlier era of prestige TV was predicated on shows with meta-narratives to be puzzled out, and which merited deep analyses read the day after watching. Here, there is nothing to figure out; as prestige passes its peak, we’re moving into the ambient era, which succumbs to, rather than competes with, your phone.

Not to be snarky, but "I've come to think of" is one of those phrases you use when you are relying on a hunch rather than data to build a premise. And while it may be true that Netflix leans into content that doesn't require a lot of intense attention, there are a couple of huge problems with this premise.

The first is that the idea of "ambient television" isn't a new idea. Television scholar Anna McCarthy wrote a book called Ambient Television about 15 years ago. TV has always been ambient. Oh, sometimes industry people called it "lay back television" or some other phrase. But it's an idea as old as the television industry. And to be fair, Chayka does reluctantly admit that television history is full of examples of "ambient television." He also doesn't mention the real home of ambient television, AVOD's such as Pluto TV.

But like a lot of journalists who write about media while also have mild contempt for the medium, Chayka then attempts to use ambient television as the jumping off point for everything from a criticism of TikTok to the theory that Netflix's content algorithm's are a form of white nationalism:

The ambience of ambient TV is often predicated on homogeneity; any diversity or discordance would disrupt the smooth, lulling surface. (“Emily in Paris” almost entirely stars white actors, too.) The lurking subtext of “Dream Home Makeover,” a kind of soft-white capitalist nationalism cloaked in throw pillows, brought to mind for me the architect Rem Koolhaas’s essay “The Generic City,” from 1995. In it, Koolhaas argues that globalization has caused a mass homogenization that leaves modern cities feeling like an airport, “a trance of almost unnoticeable aesthetic experiences.” He added that the “pervasive lack of urgency and insistence acts like a potent drug,” inducing “a hallucination of the normal.” In other words, the hypnotic quality of ambient content creates a false sense that whatever it presents is a neutral condition, a common denominator, though it is decidedly not.

Honestly, as much as I admire the writing in The New Yorker, it can sometimes be tone deaf and dismissive of anything that feels mainstream or pop culture. There is a good point buried at the heart of "Emily In Paris And The Rise Of Ambient TV." But it's buried beneath a grab bag of random ideas about media that ultimately reads like a bad media studies term paper.


Last modified on Tuesday, 17 November 2020 10:57