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How much TV should you be watching?

This little elephant of a question bestrides every room and site where people tweet, comment, update, and effuse about TV shows, but it’s rarely acknowledged. Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker’s TV critic, Alessandra Stanley, the New York Times’ TV critic, and Tom Shales, National Review’s TV critic, don’t discuss it. Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter conducts occasional “live chats” and that’s where he does acknowledge…that he can’t answer that question. These people are being paid to watch TV. They’ve got one over on us. But that also means they can’t answer this elephantine question.

These days, you can watch everything anytime you want, a blessing and a curse. You can’t blame scheduling for your missing anything anymore. You also face the temptation of watching…everything.

Important ancillary question: what counts as TV? Some people don’t count sports, or rented movies, or youtube videos. What about reading recaps, participating in reddit or other discussions? What about counting all screen time, even reading this blog?

Okay, let’s not go that far. New question: what if I told you that you’re probably not watching all that much?

Clearly, there are people who would answer the original question with Zero. Really, though, zero TV? In the first chapter of “Cognitive Surplus,” Clay Shirky makes the case that in the pre-Web 2.0-era (say, pre-2004) we all watched way too much TV, and now we can take that time to do more constructive projects on the internet (he has many examples). But…Shirky doesn’t quite advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater. TV shows can rise to the status of art, can’t they? Or even just enjoyable narrative combined with performance? Need that be expunged from our lives?

Not at all. In fact, if you’re like me, you’re not watching as much as you may think. Try this on for size: an average of 30 minutes a day. Doesn’t sound that bad, does it?

In my case it’s a little closer to an hour a day. Is that melting my brain? I don’t think so. And I suspect that your annual total is probably not that far from mine.

Before we go there, I would like to advocate for intentional viewing, or directed viewing. That is, I’d like to argue against flipping around the channels just to see what’s on. Frankly, as more and more people gravitate away from monthly $200 cable bills and toward watching TV on the internet, it seems as though channel-flipping is losing any cache it once had.

I could see someone making a case for 90 minutes a day, maybe 2 hours. Past that, come on. Take a walk outside, play with your family, call a relative.

There were a lot of year-end top 10 lists for 2014. But I felt that those lists approached their subject the wrong way. It’s just a matter of perspective. Instead of counting down ten to one, they’d have done us a better service by giving us tiers.

Tier 0 is for people who don’t watch TV. They’re probably not clicking the article in the first place.

Tier 1 are the shows for people who are doing 30 minutes a night. 30 minutes times 365 = 183ish hours of TV. (And don’t kid yourself about shows like The Good Wife lasting 42 minutes instead of an hour. If you’re watching it online you know you can’t click through those ads.)

Tier 2 are the shows for people, like me, who are doing an hour a night, or about 365 hours of TV in a year.

So how might something like this look?

My Tier 1 for 2014:

Game of Thrones (10 hours)

Orange is the New Black (10 hours)

Mad Men (7 hours)

The Americans (10 hours)

Transparent (5 hours)

Veep (5 hours)

Louie (5 hours)

True Detective (10 hours)

Fargo (10 hours)

Parks and Recreation (11 hours)

Orphan Black (10 hours)

You’re the Worst (5 hours)

Girls (5 hours)

Sherlock (5 hours)

Modern Family (11 hours)

Silicon Valley (5 hours)

House of Cards (10 hours)

How I Met Your Mother (4 hours in 2014)

Homeland (10 hours)

Boardwalk Empire (10 hours)

Key and Peele (5 hours)

South Park (5 hours)

Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, Golden Globes (15 hours)

That takes me to 183. Your results may vary, but let’s face it, isn’t that most of the really worthwhile, essential TV? Anyway, feel free to dump and replace. I tried Walking Dead but couldn’t get past the fact that they won’t get on a boat. I hear Justified is great. I don’t do a lot of sitcoms, but I hear good things about Big Bang Theory, New Girl, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Portlandia, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

My Tier 2, more in the guilty pleasure arena, would add these shows to Tier 1:

The Daily Show (78 hours) (4 half-hours a week, about 39 weeks a year)

Downton Abbey (10 hours)

Scandal (18 hours)

Real Time (26 hours)

The Affair (10 hours)

Cosmos (10 hours)

The Roosevelts (7 hours)

Survivor (24 hours)

And that’s it! I never watched the Colbert Report outside of an isolated clip or two. Ditto Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. See, an hour a day doesn’t really make you an addict, does it? It’s strange that the critics aren’t quicker to embrace the concept – are they afraid that the studios will stop sending them screeners?

Now that Jon Stewart is going off the air, I’m looking forward to spending those 78 hours somewhere else. Larry Wilmore? John Oliver? And then there are a few others, like Boardwalk Empire and Parks and Rec, who won’t be doing 2015. I’ve already watched (and loved) 7 hours of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I’d like to catch up on Archer, The Good Wife (my wife loves it), perhaps Empire, Community, Jane the Virgin, Last Man on Earth, or Agents of SHIELD? Or should I stop kidding myself and bake sports into the equation, the way that Obama stopped Bush’s policy of not counting war funds against the debt?

Anyway, all that’s just me. I think today we’ve learned that we’re all watching less TV than we worried we were. Uh, except for some of you guys who went way past this list. You, I still worry about.

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