Tuesday, April 26, 2005

# Posted 3:57 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TV IS GOOD FOR YOU! Still more good stuff in this week's NYT Magazine. According to a forthcoming book by Steven Johnson, the growing complexity of what we watch on television means that sitting on the couch should count as an educational activity. As Johnson incisively writes,

For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want.

As always, OxBlog is on the lookout for evidence that the average American is far more sophisticated than the experts want to admit. (Note to social scientists: OxBlog is also on the lookout for evidence that contradicts its hypothesis.)

Anyhow, although Johnson makes lots of good points, I'm going to reserve judgment about his overall hypothesis until I see the book. But here's an anecdote that may spark your interest. According to Johnson, the 1980s cop drama "Hill Street Blues" ushered in the modern age of television:
Before ''Hill Street,'' the conventional wisdom among television execs was that audiences wouldn't be comfortable following more than three plots in a single episode, and indeed, the ''Hill Street'' pilot, which was shown in January 1981, brought complaints from viewers that the show was too complicated. Fast-forward two decades, and shows like ''The Sopranos'' engage their audiences with narratives that make ''Hill Street'' look like ''Three's Company.'' Audiences happily embrace that complexity because they've been trained by two decades of multi-threaded dramas.
"Hill Street" rung a bell because I have vague childhood memories of my parents getting very excited about that show. Since I happened to be sitting on my parents' couch while reading Johnson's article, I rushed into their room to ask them what they remembered about "Hill Street Blues". From under the covers, my groggy father issued an animated denunication of "Hill Street" for having too many sub-plots that made its storylinesimpossible to follow.

I was dumbstruck. I assumed my father was pulling my leg. I asked him three times if he had already read the article by Steven Johnson in the NYT Magazine. He adamantly denied it.

So, you may be thinking, is Adesnik trying to tell us that his father is some sort of paleolithic neanderthal who can't appreciate good television? (After all, the man is from the Bronx and puts ketchup on his steak, sometimes even in restaurants.) The answer: No, of course not. Complexity is never something that has prevented my father from taking an interest. After all, it's pretty hard to get a Ph.D. in biophysics from MIT if you don't deal well with complexity.

So what's going on here? I think the answer is conditioning. My father grew up in the days of simpler television. That's the kind of entertainment he's used to. I grew up in the age of The Simpsons and therefore revel in the contorted plot twists and obscure cultural references of such shows.

In closing, I'll leave with you one more sharp observation from Johnson's article:
There's money to be made by making culture smarter. The economics of television syndication and DVD sales mean that there's a tremendous financial pressure to make programs that can be watched multiple times, revealing new nuances and shadings on the third viewing.
That's so true. I can watch the same episode of The Simpsons again and again and again. I even own a book that summarizes the plots and pulls out the best laugh lines from every episode in Seasons One through Eight. I figure, TV must be getting smarter if you can enjoy reading books about it.
(0) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments: Post a Comment