Forget the choices on streaming. Before bed, all I want is a broadcast I can drift off to.
I subscribe to an unreasonable number of streaming services, all fighting for supremacy on my Roku home screen: Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Prime Video, Showtime, Starz, the Criterion Channel, the Roku Channel, Kanopy, Shudder, Mubi, Disney+, Peacock, Tubi, Apple TV+, Paramount+, ESPN+, AMC+, and Acorn TV. This is in part because work requires me to have access to all the TV. But I’ve come to suspect there’s another element at work, a subconscious desire for something that has been lost.
There was a promise inherent in the idea of cutting the cord, the notion that it would be a freeing experience, eliminating the bloat and high costs of cable packages and streamlining our access to only the entertainment we want. And I’m sure that, for many viewers, it has been just that. But after cutting the cord, I’ve found that I, a FOMO-addled TV obsessive, just keep accumulating subscriptions in pursuit of something I now realize I always took for granted: the finite structure of the cable-guide listings and the associated experience of falling asleep to infomercials, B movies, and Snapped reruns. Yes, cable gave us price gouging and disappointment. But it also made picking your bedtime programming a whole lot easier.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that cable is great and certainly not that I miss my relationship to the monopolistic companies that provide it. I cut the cord for a reason. But there was something pleasurable about sitting in front of the TV screen and relinquishing control to a lineup that you could select from, look forward to, and plan around but could not change. You were beholden to what was on at any given time. The only choice was to which predetermined programming you would capitulate.
At night (or, more realistically, in the very early morning), when I was ready to fall asleep to the flickering lights and low drone of a screen, I wanted to exert as little brain power as possible in choosing what to watch. It was simple to select The Challenge on MTV or Living Single on MTV2, or The 100 Scariest Movie Moments or Inside the Actors Studio on Bravo, or Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on Food Network or Good Eats on the Cooking Channel, or The Boondocks or Aqua Teen Hunger Force on Cartoon Network, or Red Dwarf or Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on PBS, or Law and Order on — of all the unexpected channels — Sundance TV. The pro move was to find the main programming I wanted, identify a second show to occupy my dimming attention while the first was on commercials, and use the “Last” button to toggle back and forth until I eventually slid into the land of nod, accompanied by James Lipton’s ten questions or Jerry Orbach’s wry jokes about New York City’s latest murder victim.
It was a different sensation than using Netflix’s “Play Something” option, which feels like the service taking advantage of your impatience to push something the algorithm wants eyeballs on. If cable meant surrendering choice, streaming is racked with endless, relentless decision-making. How am I supposed to drift away while stressfully browsing through all the options on my Roku? The process is comparatively strenuous: Going into an app. Browsing up and down, side to side, everything blurring together. Pressing the home button. Going into another app and doing it all over again. Getting annoyed if the app glitches or freezes. Home button. Another app. Again and again and again because I’m not finding what I want — because I don’t actually know what I want.
It may sound like a contradiction, then, that I recently tried to solve this conundrum by subscribing to yet another streaming service. A few of them out there — such as Sling, Fubo, and YouTube TV — simulate the live-broadcast experience with varying channel lineups. The one I landed on is Philo, through which I plan to fall asleep to Halloween Baking Championship on Food Network (eight hours of it!), The Three Stooges on BBC America, or Monk on WE tv. The core four broadcast networks of ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, as well as ESPN, aren’t included, and I’ll still miss my local public-access programming. But the guide is back, and the schedule is here, and I need a nap.