10 Sep 2021
Ambient TV: “My generation craves the comfort of TV shows in the background when we scroll on our phones”
It is 2014. Two friends and I live in a run down three bedroom house a 10 minute walk from NUIG. A mouse has taken up residence in our kitchen and we think a badger lives in the garden. It’s 7pm and Nationwide is on TV.
a man sells pictures of cows in Wicklow. Mary from a TidyTowns committee in the Midlands is on the walls because people don’t clean up after their dogs and they have to win a gold medal this year.
Honestly, I don’t understand much of what is being said. I scroll through my phone, and so do my roommates. We just like to have At national scale as background noise. It makes the damp house feel like a home, reminding us of childhood kitchens and parental comfort. It obscures the image of the mouse which is undoubtedly digging our Cornflakes …
Fast forward seven years and people around the world follow in our footsteps watching reassuring, familiar and undemanding TV. At the same time, they cook dinners, send work emails, and curl up in the shadows of Covid-19. And now they even have a name for it – “ambient television”.
Invented in The New Yorker by writer Kyle Chayka, ambient television reached new heights of popularity as the pandemic raged and we spent every waking minute at home.
“Ambient is something you don’t have to pay attention to to enjoy it,” Chayka wrote. “But that’s still alluring enough to be convincing if you choose to do it momentarily.”
Show as Emilie in Paris, which would be considered terrible in another year, was a smash hit for Netflix. Deliciously cheesy and filled with stereotypes, Emily’s Paris was safe. Nothing bad could happen to him except a few reckless decisions at work and with men.
Better yet, you could mindlessly indulge in social media and the horrors of the natural world while watching. It was passive, but not to the point of losing control over either universe. There was always a foot in fact and fiction.
Show as Thread, Band of brothers or documentaries about real crimes are not suited to the environment. Think of endless reruns of Friends, Scrubs, Father Ted and Schitt Creek. To concern The Great British Cake or bask in Dermot Bannon turning entire houses into windows and telling another couple to screw up their budget.
Better yet, turn to Netflix because the streaming service has managed to carve out a whole genre of ambient TV for itself. So bad, they are good, its ambient offerings require little concentration.
To take Ginny and Georgia, a mother-daughter thread that manages to infiltrate clues of murder and mystery without you ever having to look up at Insta Stories. Or try Virgin river, described as “sincere” by Netflix, which means you can chop carrots, text friends, and watch YouTube videos without ever fully engaging.
Psychological and sociological theorists would say that ambient television is a symptom of our hyper-tech lifestyles. Unfortunately, they are right.
Generation Z and Generation Y need constant digital stimulation. The silence is deafening and a screen is no longer enough. We need hands and eyes on everything. The idea that we could have it all now also applies to content. Time is running out and we need to consume as much as possible in the wee hours that we have.
But this awareness cannot explain everything. Some vibe providers have moved away from home, live in foreign lands, have experienced a breakup, or are simply trying to block the world and its seemingly endless terror.
This is why I turn to At national scale as background noise over and over again. Nothing sinister ever happens. Even though Mary from Midlands was to leave the TidyTowns committee in disgrace because she was caught stealing bottles of wine from the local Centra, At national scale wouldn’t tell us. And I thank them for that.
So the next time you find yourself sitting in a quiet room, pull out the phone and turn on the television.
But whatever you watch, make it easy, make it light and ambient.