I have to say I was kind of happy when our big-screen TV broke. Relieved. Liberated. The 15-year-old honking monstrosity dated from the pre-plasma days and resembled Jabba the Hutt, but it worked, sucking us into its vortex of images and sound. My husband and I watched movies when we could find something at the local video store we hadn't seen, but increasingly it became TV shows -- "Prime Suspect," "Cracker" and, for one hallucinatory summer, three entire seasons of "The Shield." Addictively, like we were strung out on the crack cocaine of Michael Chiklis' angry adrenalin.
Apparently I'm not alone in my inability to voluntarily shut down the pop culture morphine drip.
According to the Census Bureau's 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States, the average American spends 9.6 hours a day inhaling media -- watching television, using computers, listening to the radio, going to the movies and/or reading. We as a nation apparently spend on average two months of every year just watching TV. Perhaps it's not crazy given that, according to the 2006 International Television and Video Almanac, we have 392 national cable channels to choose from and 40,000 DVD titles. And let's not forget the 175,000 books published annually, or the hundreds of movies released each year and the billions of Internet pages.
And still we want more -- according to the census data, America's per capita pop culture consumption is expected to increase from 3,333 hours a year in 2000 to 3,518 hours in 2007. As Brian Graden, president of entertainment for the MTV Networks Music Group, notes, "the more media that's consumed, the more it drives overall usage. It's like an echo chamber effect."
Twenty years ago, people worried about the New Yorkers stacking up in their bathrooms, but now there's also 100 hours of TV stacked up in their TiVo and a long line of desired videos in the Netflix cue as well. Contemplating media overload, savvy media consumers and social scientists have even more weighty concerns: Is the glut of entertainment polarizing our country, killing our attention spans and turning us into a nation of fickle dilettantes?
On a personal level, how do people cope with the technoworld of infinite choice, particularly those who need to keep ahead of the curve?
Roy Lee, known around town as Hollywood's go-to guy for the latest sensation from Asia, manages to keep current by giving up sleep. He's down to a mere three to four hours a night. The 37-year-old producer on such fare as "The Grudge" and "The Departed," Lee watches a movie every night from 10 to midnight as he works out on the elliptical trainer, then spends the next three hours online trolling through websites, reading entertainment bloggers such as Jeffrey Wells and David Poland or searching cinema sites such as Twitchfilm.com or Cinematical.com for hints of what's cool in Seoul, Hong Kong and Taipei, Taiwan.
For books and music, he relies on Amazon.com's list of top sellers. The only medium that flummoxes him is TV -- "I feel overwhelmed by the amount of TV. I try to limit myself to one show that I watch."
His friend, and rival, producer J.C. Spink stays abreast by reading 150 publications a month -- including newspapers, magazines and the trades; other established publications such as Entertainment Weekly, his bible for TV; and more obscure publications such as Fortean Times and Mental Floss, which has "some great trivia. You find out how frozen dinners came into existence."
He researches his options further by surfing online, hunting for "niche people who like the same things you like, and looking at their recommendations." He reads the self-anointed commentators on IMDB, and if he likes what they say, looks for their other posts. Spinks, who no longer buys CDs but simply downloads songs, hunts for "peer-to-peer tastemakers." Recently, he has been relying on Cornerstone, a CD/video sampler compiled by a marketing group that he mysteriously began getting every month because they'd deemed the 33-year-old producer of "A History of Violence" a tastemaker. "I get to hear and see 60 new bands every month. I usually end up downloading songs by a bunch of them," he says.
DreamWorks chief executive Stacey Snider, who's renowned among intimates for having seemingly read every book possible and seen every cool movie worth seeing, says she winnows her choices by relying on peer recommendations -- but only from friends and acquaintances. "It's a group of people -- they turn me on to stuff and I turn them on to stuff. We know our tastes are comparable," she says.