Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Monday, April 25, 2005


-- television -- tv makes you smarter?

The New York Times Magazine: Watching TV Makes You Smarter By STEVEN JOHNSON April 24, 2005

On Jan. 24, the Fox network showed an episode of its hit drama ''24,'' the real-time thriller known for its cliffhanger tension and often- gruesome violence. Over the preceding weeks, a number of public controversies had erupted around ''24,'' mostly focused on its portrait of Muslim terrorists and its penchant for torture scenes. The episode that was shown on the 24th only fanned the flames higher: in one scene, a terrorist enlists a hit man to kill his child for not fully supporting the jihadist cause; in another scene, the secretary of defense authorizes the torture of his son to uncover evidence of a terrorist plot.

But the explicit violence and the post-9/11 terrorist anxiety are not the only elements of ''24'' that would have been unthinkable on prime-time network television 20 years ago. Alongside the notable change in content lies an equally notable change in form. During its 44 minutes -- a real-time hour, minus 16 minutes for commercials -- the episode connects the lives of 21 distinct characters, each with a clearly defined ''story arc,'' as the Hollywood jargon has it: a defined personality with motivations and obstacles and specific relationships with other characters. Nine primary narrative threads wind their way through those 44 minutes, each drawing extensively upon events and information revealed in earlier episodes. Draw a map of all those intersecting plots and personalities, and you get structure that -- where formal complexity is concerned -- more closely resembles ''Middlemarch'' than a hit TV drama of years past like ''Bonanza.''

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. But as that ''24'' episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ''24,'' you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all....

So the reason, therefore, that people appear to be more absorbed in current television shows than they might have been in the past is that such attention is required to understand what's going on.

Even the junk -- bad sitcoms, game shows, reality television programming, etc. -- winds up being more difficult to follow, engages different parts of the brain than old-style shows, and thus winds up helping with the development of some areas of the brain.

Is television more complex simply because society is more complex, and thus people simply expect their entertainment to be more complex as well? After all, many people like watching shows such as 24 and Alias because they're escapist fare; you'd think people would actively resist watchihg shows that made them think unless somehow, they'd been led to expect that sort of mental activity almost all the time.

Posted by iain at 12:53 PM in category television