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Why streaming networks love a good background show

Matt Levin Apr 11, 2023
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Ambient streaming: TV shows you tune out, but somehow make our caveman brains feel connected to others. Mauricio Graiki/Getty Images

Why streaming networks love a good background show

Matt Levin Apr 11, 2023
Heard on:
Ambient streaming: TV shows you tune out, but somehow make our caveman brains feel connected to others. Mauricio Graiki/Getty Images
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Tomorrow Warner Bros. Discovery is supposed to reveal it’s new but not really new streaming service. What once was called HBO Max will now just be called Max, according to The New York Times. 

Beyond the name change, it could include more light reality TV shows like “Dr. Pimple Popper” and “House Hunters International” — you know, the shows you might put on in the background while you’re doing chores, paying bills or working.

There’s a term for shows like that: ambient streaming.

I’ll confess, I’ll sometimes put a show on in the background while I’m, say, frantically emailing streaming experts for interviews.

It usually goes something like this: I scroll through Netflix, seeing what’s on. My favorite is “Black Mirror,” but it’s a bit too intense. Eventually, I find something, hit play and hear, “Hello bakers, welcome to the tent.” There we go.

I’m actually not a huge “Great British Baking Show” guy. But that’s exactly the type of show we watch while — wait, why do we put it on if we’re not paying attention to it? 

“Our ancestors were the ones who lived together with other people, who needed other people and were in collectives. And so we evolved a primitive mechanism that pushes us towards feeling connected to others,” said Shira Gabriel, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She said it goes back to our days as hunter-gatherers.

In other words, somewhere deep in the recesses of our caveman brains, we think the sound of the Real Housewives’ voices will keep us from being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. And certain shows scratch that evolutionary itch better than others.

“A repeated narrative structure, like something like ‘House Hunters,’ where they are different people every time but we sort of know these characters, right?” Gabriel explained.

Sitcom reruns work well as ambient TV, but the problem for streamers is that the “Seinfeld” or “Fresh Prince” catalog could be very expensive.

Charles Schreger, a New York University business professor, said you might subscribe to a streaming service for the prestige dramas, like “Succession,” but the ambient streaming library is meant to keep you from unsubscribing as soon as “Succession” ends.

“How do you keep that subscriber engaged enough so that she won’t press the button to cancel the $10 that she has to pay for next month?” he said.

I know I may be biased here, but you know what doesn’t cost $10 a month that you can play in the background while you’re doing chores? 

The radio.  

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