One of the first jobs I had in TV was for a satirical news program, watching all of the breakfast shows and taking notes. Every day I would watch each of Australia’s four breakfast TV offerings (this was during the tenure of 10’s disastrous Breakfast with Paul Henry) and log notable quotes or fuck ups or anything that our show might be able to use over the course of our weekly broadcast. Each show went for three hours, which meant that every single day I would watch twelve hours of breakfast TV. Of course, there wasn’t enough time in a work day to watch all four programs and take the notes I needed to, so I ended up watching them at double speed. And after three months of this, something not particularly surprising happened and I had a discrete, quiet, but robust mental breakdown.
The problem, I remember explaining to my wife, was that this media was simply not designed to be ingested in this way. Adam Boland, the wunderkind behind Sunrise, has said that the average viewer watches around nine minutes of breakfast TV in any one go. They watch nine minutes of Kochie asking Prue Macsween if we should liquidate the homeless for nutrients or Stevie Jacobs doing the weather cross in Moree from The World’s Largest Quiche, and then they go drop the kids off to school or head into work and they don’t watch any more of it. And in doing this they don’t become medically insane.
I’ve given a lot of thought as to what it is about this form of media that means it has to be, essentially, microdosed, and I think I’ve finally worked it out. The thing that most people don’t understand about breakfast television, and the thing that once you do understand makes sense of pretty much every facet of it, is that three hours is a patently insane amount of TV to make every single day of the week. One of the reasons we don’t think about this is that, as Adam Boland says, virtually no one actually watches three hours of it. It has to go for three hours because every single person in the country has their nine minutes in the morning where they watch TV with a bit of toast in their mouth while they get ready for their days at different times spread out over the course of the morning. If everyone agreed to do this at the same time, we could probably keep these shows to around 15 minutes tops. But we won’t so we can’t.
As a result, a team of people - a far smaller and younger team of people than you probably imagine - have to shovel content into the maw of this monster that eats time so that it’ll lumber from one ad break to the next over the course of 180 minutes, every morning, every day, every week until the sun graciously explodes and we all get to go home. By far the cheapest and easiest and most reliable fuel to keep this train chugging along is asking, over and over and over again, What do we reckon? Because if you take away the part of breakfast television where the hosts and pundits and experts and everyday people tell you what their opinion is on any given subject, then you’re left with around fifteen minutes of news, sport and an intern in a cow suit giving money to a bewildered pensioner. So you fill it with the cheapest, the easiest and the most accessible content available - opinion.
Consider the difference in labour between making a three minute news package - even a bad one - and making the five minutes of discussion that follow that news package. One requires news gathering, writing, travel, interviews, research, a journalist, a camera crew, an editor - multiple people with a level of specialised skill and experience, some of whom probably suck at their jobs but, crucially, none of whom could be replaced by someone you found at the bus stop. Not so for the discussion. The only thing that qualifies a person to go on breakfast television and produce five minutes of content is the willingness to turn up to a studio early in the morning for little more than a cabcharge, and talk until they are told to stop.
And so, after three months of this my mind turned to soup. This is not the fault of breakfast TV. As I say, it’s simply not meant to be consumed like this. If I eat three cans of pickles in one sitting and get diarrhea for a week I don’t blame the pickle company. But what I find interesting is the way in which this specific kind of TV boiled my brain. The only way I can describe it is a kind of inability to see anything as it is, and instead as it means. Nothing was safe from this mindset. Not a film, not a conversation with a friend, not a nice sit in a park on a bright summer’s day. Behind everything there lurked some fascinating and essential truth just waiting to be extrapolated. And this is, you'll appreciate, a psychologically crippling way to interact with the world. Eventually, the job ended and after a few weeks everything returned to normal, brain-wise.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that time and that mindset recently, because despite staying a comfortable distance away from breakfast TV these days, that feeling seems to be creeping back. And not just for me. We’re stuck in an endless content churn where we obsessively try to wring meaning from the practically meaningless, falling over each other to get to the bottom of what this song or show or earthquake Really Says About Things When You Think About It. Nothing is actually about the thing it is, it’s about the other thing.
(Here I would like to, like when Sideshow Bob appeared on TV in order to decry it, point out that I am aware of the irony of writing this all up as a first person essay.)
This relentless onslaught of takes is often framed as a problem with social media, which then infects the Actual Media, but I think that gets things backwards. Because the problem faced by those content-desperate producers of breakfast television is not confined to those programs or that medium. The amount of content that needs to be produced every single day, the sheer amount of stuff that needs to be pumped into the world at all times, is difficult to overstate. And filling this content deficit with virtually anything other than opinion is prohibitively expensive and inefficient. So now every single outlet on the planet has the same breakfast show problem, with the same breakfast show solution - what do we reckon? - and the sheer amount of opinions to which the average person is exposed on a daily basis would cause someone from even 100 years ago to immediately shit their pants.
Unlike breakfast TV, though, we don’t consume it for nine minutes at a time, we live and breathe and bathe in it and, like me in my early 20s hunched over a laptop watching a sped-up Karl Stefanovic get cross about hand-stands being banned in a school in Dubbo, I think it is causing us to become mad. It can’t help but inform how we think about things and how we, in turn, talk and post about them. Nothing - a film, a scene, a novel, a review, an essay, an interview - is actually about the thing it is. Everything happens so much.
This is all especially mental when you consider that this approach doesn’t come from any underlying philosophy from anyone but rather a desperate need to just cram the passing minutes or column inches or pixels with literally anything that works.
For what it’s worth, I have no idea how to fix any of this.