From May 1998 to August of 2002, I didn’t have television reception. I had a TV set, but its sole purpose was to play movies. Because of that, I have odd gaps in my TV literacy. I missed several seasons of Buffy until they appeared on DVD. I’ve seen more Fox News while watching Outfoxed than I ever have while flipping channels. I didn’t see a single episode of Survivor until the third season (even though I could likely name half a dozen of the contestants from that season). I watched only one episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire when a colleague at Purdue happened to be a contestant. And I didn’t watch a single minute of TV coverage of the September 11 attacks on TV until President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech. This experience ultimately made me much more conscious of my TV viewing habits, and I still prefer to watch TV episodes on DVD several episodes at a time and without commercial interruption. In a sense, not watching TV has made me even more conscious of the temporality of TV, a question I’ve been thinking about for my book project.
I mention my televisual autobiography because TV has been a hot topic on the blogosphere this week. On one side of the spectrum, Scrivener mentions that April 25 – May 1 is National TV Turn-Off Week. On the other side, Steven Johnson argues that watching TV makes you smarter.
Now, of course, TV Turn-Off Week is designed to encourage children to spend more time reading and to discourage excessive TV watching, but these activities tend to ignore the educative aspects of television watching. I’m not necessarily even talking about educational TV here–I learned much about narrative and allusion from Bugs Bunny cartoons, for example, especially when characters would break the fourth wall. Now, to be fair (and to draw rom my own experience), I think it can be beneficial as a thought experiement — for adults or children — to stop watching TV for a short period of time (a week, a month), but after my experiment, I’m now inclined to think that watching TV is a virtue, and I honestly wish I had the patience and opportunity to watch more TV.
In that regard, I think that Steven Johnson’s New York Times article is an interesting companion to National TV Turn-Off Week. Johnson notes that a show like Fox’s politically ambivalent and narratively complicated real-time drama, 24, requires a great deal of concentration, an ability to juggle multiple narratives and character relationships on the scale of a George Eliot novel (his metaphor) or a Robert Altman film. And I think he’s right to argue that many anti-TV arguments have been misplaced. Yes, it’s better to have morally complicated shows like 24 or The Sopranos, but like him, I’m more interested in seeing TV as a kind of “cognitive workout,” one that can make us aware of the work we have to do “to make sense of a cultural experience.”
That being said, I’m not sure that Johnson’s model completely works, either. He compares shows with multiple narratives to shows with “intellectual” dialogue such as Murphy Brown or Frasier, arguing that these shows require less from their viewers. That may very well be true, but the claim also reinforces a form-content opposition that seems untenable to me. In addition, he argues that Hill Street Blues, the first “serious” drama, melds the serious subject matter of cops and robbers with the complicated narrative structures of “fluffy” soap operas, asserting that soapy shows such as Dallas aren’t “serious.” Implied here, in my reading, is the assumption that cop shows (usually the domain of male figures) are more serious than soaps (coded as domestic, female), which also seems problematic to me. But my biggest reservation is that Johnson’s comments seem to reduce “thought” to one activity: sorting out narrative threads. Even if working through the narrative of Alias is more complicated than sorting out what’s happening on Starsky and Hutch, that’s only one version of thought, and potentially a fairly limited one.
Still, I’m inclined to agree that TV watching can be a far more complicated and challenging activity than is usually assumed, and Johnson’s article makes that point nicely. That being said, I might unintentionally participate in this week’s TV Turn-off events, not intentionally but because I’m in the midst of a grading triathlon (film papers, freshman composition papers and web projects, and film final exams). Johnson article via TV Barn (see also Dave Does the Blog).
Update: Steven Johnson has a post in his blog about the Times article, an abstract from his forthcoming book, Everything Bad is Good for You. In the blog entry, Johnson includes a thought experiment, imagining an alternate universe in which everything is the same except one technological development, with video games being invented before books.