Inspired by her difficulty selecting a film as the subject for her column, Film Quarterly regular Caetlin Benson-Allott explores the concept of the “paradox of choice” in relation to contemporary film culture. A common feature of late-stage capitalism with its characteristic consumer abundance, the paradox of choice afflicts people with too many options, decreasing their happiness and increasing anxiety. In her column, Benson-Allott explores the paradox of choice as a condition of the current streaming era, while also historicizing television culture’s ideology of plenty. She traces this notion of superabundance, which undergirds digital cable and streaming culture today, back to the 1950s when print media such as TV Guide pioneered a print-heavy layout that stupefied the eye into an impression of excess. Arguing that browsing print program guides and its more recent corollary, channel surfing, are numbing experiences that discourage risk-taking, Benson-Allott ultimately finds relief from the ennui of the scroll in the pleasures—both expected and unexpected—of the genre film.
Even those who never suffered “the paradox of choice” probably recognized its highly gendered representation in The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 Iraq War drama.1 Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is grocery shopping with his family when his wife asks him to select a breakfast cereal. He grudgingly agrees, and the camera cuts to a long shot of James standing stock-still before a seemingly infinite array of cereal boxes. Close-ups and point-of-view shots capture his growing unease: of all these choices, which is the right one? Eventually James grabs a package at random, throwing it into the cart before trudging away from the camera, his shoulders hunched in defeat.
As James’s experience demonstrates, the paradox of choice afflicts people with too many options, decreasing their happiness and increasing anxiety. Psychologist Barry Schwartz explicitly links this problem to the consumer abundance of late-stage capitalism and notes that the entertainment industry is among its many proponents.2 Correspondingly, many US films include scenes in which characters either succumb to or overcome the paradox of choice, including Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971), Moscow on the Hudson (Paul Mazursky, 1984), and Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995). But the paradox of choice is not just a subject for film; it is also a condition of film culture, especially in the current streaming era.
I suffered from the paradox of choice while hunting for a film to write about for this column. Between us, my partner and I subscribe to six streaming services and rent on-demand titles as well. With so many options at my disposal, it should not have been difficult to find a movie worth writing about. There are obviously many good movies out there—too many, in fact! Psychologists have found that the more choices a consumer has, the less likely they are to find what they’re looking for. Instead, their expectations rise and their confidence in their own taste falters, effectively preventing satisfaction. For decades, television and home video have made so many films (good and bad) available that choosing one can feel impossible. This problem only becomes more pressing with the debut of each new streaming platform. In early 2019, Nielsen’s MediaTech Trender survey revealed that 21 percent of viewers who start browsing for something to watch give up without finding anything—and that was before Apple TV+, HBO Max, and Disney+ joined the fray.3
In the United States, this predicament dates back to 1950s television culture’s ideology of abundance. Through print listings and other marketing initiatives, broadcasters promoted the idea that the new medium offered a cornucopia of unique, compelling programming. Yet listings intrinsically level all televisual content. Their inventories create an aesthetic of visual equivalency in which nothing appeals because it all looks the same. Such alienation might seem to be bad for business, but it serves an important, if counterintuitive, industrial function. Excessive choice pushes viewers toward the generic and familiar rather than the mysterious or unconventional. Consequently, it reduces risk for producers and distributors. Historicizing this particular paradox of choice—or the ennui of the scroll, as I call it—shows how it has produced this tendency in viewers but also how it can conversely push viewers to develop and trust their own idiosyncratic tastes.
Even before US broadcasters began inundating viewers with more programming than any person could reasonably watch, print media were pushing the ideology of plenty that undergirds digital cable and streaming culture today. In 1982, Brian Winston coined the term “television of abundance” to describe the doctrine of TV Guide, the first national periodical to publish weekly television listings (along with short reviews, celebrity profiles, and industry-friendly journalism).4 TV Guide’s listings simply and concisely itemized what was on when. By marketing such inventories, the magazine suggested that television programming was plentiful enough to warrant a guide—even when it wasn’t. Indeed, most consumers received only one or two television channels (if any) when TV Guide entered national circulation in April 1953. Nevertheless, the journal’s print-heavy layout stupefied the eye into an impression of abundance.
To be sure, perusing the listings of a midcentury TV Guide was easier—on the eyes and the mind—than scouring a 1990s programming guide, which contained hundreds more entries. The same is true of TV Guide’s historic competitors: newspapers’ Sunday TV Week inserts and daily programming grids. All numb the senses. As Winston observed, print TV listings are “extremely difficult to read…. [B]asically there is an endless problem of actually finding your way about, knowing what’s on at any given point.” MJ Robinson recently noted that listings turn entertainment into labor, as would-be viewers must “cull though a seemingly endless range of programming choices.”5 Indeed, deciphering print listings requires the procurement and navigation of a pretty boring remediation of television before enjoying television itself. This pre-televisual chore ironically contradicts how television presents itself: as easy to use, always available, and always entertaining. None of those qualities pertains to its print compendiums.
Print television listings also generate ennui by creating a fundamental equivalence between all programming, as their formats signal differences between programs without creating distinctions. Granted, TV Guide, TV Week, and daily newspaper grids are all accompanied by a few brief recommendations. However informative such endorsements might be, though, they do not perform the crucial function of telling viewers what’s on now. And in the listings themselves, titles quickly swim together, films and sporting events blending in with sitcoms, dramas, and news programs. As the eye tires, distress sets in and anything familiar starts to seem good enough, be it a cult favorite like Fantastic Voyage (Richard Fleischer, 1966) or just Step Brothers (Adam McKay, 2008).
During the 1970s and 1980s, remote controls and expanding cable packages enabled channel surfing to emerge as a comparatively entertaining alternative to print listings. By 1986, most American homes featured at least one remote-controlled television set, which fundamentally shifted the ethos of domestic entertainment.6 That same year, George V. Higgins coined the term “channel surfing” in the Wall Street Journal.7 As I have previously noted, channel surfing was a historically and culturally specific response to three changes in the television industry: the proliferation of infrared remote-control devices, the development of satellite communications for television distribution, and the corresponding increase in cable networks.8 Channel surfing offered viewers a new, potentially enjoyable way to find out what was on at any given time, although it also reinforced the paradox of choice.
Personally I’ve always found channel surfing unsatisfying and ineffective, premised as it is on the notion that there must be something better on somewhere else. Some viewers, however, find it deeply gratifying, even arousing. For communications scholar Brian Ott, for instance, channel surfing teases a desire for entertainment “by promising to stimulate … but temporarily withholding fulfillment,” allowing him to linger with the fantasy of televisual abundance.9
But what of those tedious evenings when there’s really nothing on? That’s what I encountered recently in a hotel room outside of Rochester, New York, when spotty Wi-Fi and a glitchy electronic programming guide left me surfing through a hundred stations by hand. How many HBO channels does it take, I wondered, before a decent film turns up by accident? How many faith-based networks are there these days anyway? Soon I was zapping past content I assumed I wouldn’t like (religious programming, live sports) to gauge things I’d previously enjoyed (police procedurals, B movies, and home-renovation shows). Captive to the impulse to find out what else was on, I struggled to remember the station number of the last best thing I saw as I clicked, and clicked, and clicked.
The experience was deeply numbing, albeit in a different way from scanning print program guides. Making sense of print listings is wearisome but requires concentration; channel surfing destroys concentration. The channel surfer is always engaged with at least two options at once: the last best thing and whatever’s currently on-screen. Under such conditions, comparative evaluation becomes the prevailing spectatorial disposition, sorting what might be good from what could be better. Such a mindset does not support deep engagement, as it’s hard to invest in the moment while preoccupied with other possible moments. Channel surfing thus dampens TV’s entertainment value even as it heightens the experience of televisual abundance. It also fundamentally discourages risk-taking: I rarely linger on the unknown or mysterious when the logic of comparativism keeps pushing a fantasy of complete televisual satisfaction.
That’s how, on another evening of increasingly lackadaisical channel surfing, I ended up settling into the second half of Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987). I’d seen the antifeminist melodrama many times already and knew I’d be annoyed by its violent defense of nuclear families and philandering patriarchs. Hate-watching can be enticing, however; in fact, it was precisely because I knew how I’d react that Fatal Attraction finally arrested my channel surfing.
As Brent Malin has shown, syndication-based cable networks like TNT—the very network where I caught Fatal Attraction—rely on recognizable content and unpredictable programming schedules to catch the eyes of viewers scrolling by. These linear programmers gamble on “familiar story arcs and ideological values in an attempt to hold viewers’ attention once they get them watching.”10 Many also borrow HBO’s bygone technique of repeating the same film back-to-back to retain viewers who started watching partway through the first broadcast.11 Such programming strategies look ridiculous in print, but for the cable-era channel surfer they present an irresistible opportunity: to rest with the familiar indefinitely.
Consecutive screenings can also entice viewers browsing “the crawl”—a colloquial name for the scrolling electronic program guides (EPGs) introduced by United Video Satellite Group (USVG) in 1981. EPGs are computer-generated lists of everything currently playing or about to play in a given cable provider’s lineup. What those listings actually looked like varies from provider to provider, but all mimic the design of print television guides. Instead of eyeing static lists, however, crawl viewers have to hold their gaze as viewing options roll past. There are dozens of recordings of 1980s EPGs on YouTube. I do not recommend watching them for too long, however: the crawl can be just as headache inducing now as it was back then.12
Early iterations of the crawl often paired listings with prerecorded easy-listening music, while later versions featured local radio patter or played video ads in the top half of the screen. Ironically, adding verbal or audiovisual content to the crawl did not make it more pleasant to use, because its raison d’être was always conveying what was on elsewhere. EPGs were designed as an alternative to the rapid clicking of channel surfing; they encouraged users to linger until they saw what they’d like to watch and then key in the number for that station. However, remembering what looked good while scanning for what looks better requires mental as well as visual focus. It is frustrating, not entertaining.
Few digital-cable or satellite television subscribers use EPGs anymore; most prefer interactive program guides (IPGs), which allow users to scroll or search for available media. IPG interfaces closely resemble daily newspaper television listings, albeit with subpages that provide additional information. In the 2010s, some IPGs started integrating recommendation algorithms to help users evaluate the ever-expanding range of digital cable networks. Nevertheless, IPGs did not resolve the ennui of the scroll.
A study by Ericsson ConsumerLab in 2016 found that linear television consumers spend 19 percent of their television time scrolling or channel surfing. Indeed, “the average US TV viewer will spend 1.3 years of [their] life searching the TV guide for something to watch.”13 By representing linear television as a digital spreadsheet, moreover, IPGs recode entertainment as information. Although IPGs predate streaming platforms, they, too, turn TV into an app and subsume its spontaneous pleasures of programming into the tedious order of the grid and the dispiriting navigation that grids require.
Of late—and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic—streaming-media platforms have dominated—and exacerbated—viewerly ennui. Streaming platforms relieve the dull chronologic of IPG grids by combining the time-shifting ethos of Sony’s “Watch Whatever Whenever” campaign for its Betamax VCR with television’s ideology of abundance. Yet their superabundant libraries only intensify the paradox of choice. As Chuck Tryon has noted, proprietary licensing turns streaming media providers into “competing miniplexes, each with access to a limited range of content, with frequently changing marquees.”14 There’s no way to surf or scroll these competitors simultaneously. So if I have a couple of hours to watch something, but not anything in particular, today I find myself perusing Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Prime Video, Kanopy, and the Criterion Channel to make up my mind.
Online, the paradox of choice is staggering, and consequently the choices themselves often fail to excite. For although the streaming platforms’ interfaces provide more and better synopses than previous listing formats, they also figuratively level all the titles in their libraries. All employ recommendation algorithms that blur any distinction between endorsement and promotion. Quality as such is de-emphasized in favor of such specious distinctions as “Trending Now,” “Newly Added Movies,” “Free to Me,” and “For You.”15 Even seemingly meritorious categories like “Academy Award Nominated Films” or “Award Winners” contain mediocrity alongside excellence: As Good As It Gets (James L. Brooks, 1997) appears next to The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 2000), Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) next to The Wild Thornberrys Movie (Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian, 2002).16 Casting my eyes over the hundreds of choices on any one platform only makes me wonder what’s available on the others—or whether it’s worth the transaction fee to rent an otherwise inaccessible title.
The more I look, though, the more frustrated and disgusted I get. Encountering movies I’ve enjoyed before—such as The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2020) or Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018)—I remember only their flaws, the moments they bored rather than the moments they inspired. Films I always meant to watch—The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976) or Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Sophie Fiennes, 2018)—begin to feel like too much work. With so many films on offer, it would seem as if the perfect film must be out there—or if not the perfect film, then at least the film that is perfect for right now. Yet the longer I look, the less likely I am to select something original and thought-provoking.
Instead, the paradox of choice pushes me toward the comfort and safety of well-known titles or genres. The longer my search continues, the more I forsake innovation and artistic ambition as futile desiderata and seek familiarity instead. Pursuing the familiar, however, doesn’t necessarily mean I want to watch something I’ve seen before. Rather, I want to watch something like something I’ve seen before: the same, but different.
For me, that means a moderately competent or promising film from a genre whose rules I know well. For while the ennui of the scroll flattens art and entertainment into information, genre movies—especially genre parodies and pastiches—reimagine familiar character types and conventions as informed entertainment. Their reflexive gestures affirm that everyone realizes what’s going on here: the filmmakers know I know their movie is derivative, and they celebrate and reward my knowing by pandering to me.
It is this dynamic that finally brought me an antidote for my ennui: the Nicholas Cage vehicle Willy’s Wonderland (Kevin Lewis, 2021). I won’t belabor the merits of Lewis’s film: they are less important in this context than its appeal. The film cannily combines several properties beloved by B-movie fans: a lead actor known for his eccentric performance style, a confrontation-driven narrative structure, and copious gore. Notably, no one to whom I’ve suggested Willy’s Wonderland has been as taken with it as I was. Its charms seem contingent on my particular ennui of the scroll: after forty-five minutes spent scouring Netflix, Kanopy, and finally Hulu, I was no longer in the mood for a movie that would challenge me intellectually or emotionally. I craved only entertainment and a predetermined reaction.
Like Fatal Attraction, this genre film catered to my lowered expectations, which is by no means an insult to Willy’s Wonderland. The more audiences face the paradox of choice—online, on television, and hopefully one day back at the cinema—the more likely they are to gravitate toward media that reflect past media experiences. The ennui of the scroll is shaping viewers’ taste, in other words, in ways critics have yet to address.
Every viewer must deal with the ennui of the scroll in their own way. Although some may seek to avoid scrolling entirely (if that’s even possible), the ennui of the scroll can paradoxically help viewers find pleasure in new variations on clichéd themes, as I discovered while watching Willy’s Wonderland. If, as Malin noted, undirected viewers are drawn to familiar content, narratives, and ideologies, then television and streaming-media distributors have not been and will not be motivated to remedy the ennui of the scroll. But such malaise can also force viewers to question what they’re really looking for at any given time. That’s why recommendation algorithms rarely overcome the ennui of the scroll: their lists still leave viewers reliant on their own taste. Taste may no longer lead viewers to choose more creative or sophisticated content, but it has taught me to trust the small quiet voice in the back of my head, the one that whispers Yes, this.
Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (New York: Ecco, 2004).
Sara Fischer, “Streaming’s Bounty of Choices Overwhelms Consumers,” Axios, July 12, 2019, www.axios.com/streamings-bounty-of-choices-overwhelms-consumers-b8408968-0dc7-405b-8631-e404480b6230.html.
Paper Tiger Television, “Brian Winston Reads TV Guide: Journal of the Wasteland,” Vimeo video, 28:34, April 28, 1982, https://vimeo.com/141241770.
MJ Robinson, Television on Demand: Curatorial Culture and the Transformation of TV (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 41.
Bob Baker, “Revolution by Remote,” Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2003, www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-apr-13-ca-baker13-story.html.
George V. Higgins, “Television: Much of a Muchness,” Wall Street Journal, November 10, 1986, ProQuest.
Caetlin Benson-Allott, Remote Control (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).
Brian L. Ott, “Television as Lover, Part II: Doing Auto[Erotic]Ethnography,” Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 7, no. 3 (August 2007): 302.
Brent Malin, “Drive-By Programming: Niche Marketing to the Channel Surfer on TNT, MTV, and CNN,” Explorations in Media Ecology 2, no. 2 (2003): 103.
Interestingly, ConsumerLab directly correlated viewers’ frustration over the search for content with the rise of binge-viewing practices. The more I hate my IPG, evidently, the more likely I am to push through season after season of a single show. Ericsson ConsumerLab, “TV & Media 2016 Presentation,” November 1, 2016, 34, www.ericsson.com/4a2ce4/assets/local/reports-papers/consumerlab/reports/2016/tv-media-2016-presentation-ericsson-consumerlab.pdf.
Chuck Tryon, On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 32.
These category titles are taken from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and HBO Max, as of July 25, 2021.
On July 25, 2021, the first two titles appeared contiguously on Hulu while the latter two were listed consecutively on Prime Video.