Televized Thoughts

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.


  1. ***Dave Said,

    April 25, 2005 @ 2:52 pm

    I don’t know that the two concepts are incompatible. There are lots of things that are good for one that could bear with skipping now and then, especially if something else beneficial in another way is substituted.

    And, of course, if you can TiVo the favorite (and narratively complicated) shows you miss that week.

  2. AA Said,

    April 25, 2005 @ 3:05 pm

    watching TV is a virtue” — now that is a beautiful phrase. Thanks for spreading the word about TV-turn off week, so that I can now take pride in virtuously boycotting the boycott!

  3. Chuck Said,

    April 25, 2005 @ 4:12 pm

    Dave, I meant to reconcile the two positions at the end of the blog entry, but as often happens in my entries, I never quite got there.

    AA, I only say that because I don’t watch enough TV. My best working hours are usually between 7-11 PM, right when primetime TV is on.

    Unfortunately, I don’t yet have TiVo, so I still live in the age where TV shows happen when they happen, and if you miss ’em, you have to wait for the re-run (or the DVD).

  4. Earth Wide Moth Said,

    April 25, 2005 @ 8:30 pm

    On Channel Two

    Until I read Andy Cline’s entry at, I didn’t even know it was TV Turn-Off week.  I’ve already soaked up a few minutes of TV today, so I guess I blew that one.  Next year, next year.  Plus, with the NBA playoffs, forget it.&…

  5. Cassie Said,

    April 26, 2005 @ 12:08 am

    As the eponymous main character of House MD says, “Less reading. More TV.”

    (Incidentally, I cannot recommend House enough. It is a fantastic drama and has incredible dialogue, plus it features an English guy doing a remarkable American accent and is based on Holmes.)

  6. Chuck Said,

    April 26, 2005 @ 12:19 am

    I’ve never seen House MD (just the temporarily ubiquitous commercials for the show). Are we meant to take his comments seriously? I mean, he is a TV character.

    But I guess I’m suspicious of claims that mark reading as necessraily “better” than watching TV.

  7. AA Said,

    April 26, 2005 @ 10:34 am

    Or there’s always downloading — the poor man’s Tivo. Commercials are always edited out already, which is nice. You know… or so I hear… I hear that’s how some budget-conscious people reconcile their schedules with their dirty — or virtuous! — habit. Ahem. But that does require a certain degree of determination (not to mention high-speed internet access). Depends on how serious a person is about her tv-watching, I guess… judge that as you may!

    I think watching tv did make me smarter when I was a kid, actually — if only because my mom forbade tv during the week unless we earned straight A’s in school. In high school I cared more about Dawson’s Creek than I did about getting into college when I was earning that Valedictorian’s medal — ha. (Joking aside, I always read a lot when I was growing up more than anything else, so I do acknowledge the good intentions of the TV-turn off week for kids).

  8. Chuck Said,

    April 26, 2005 @ 11:47 am

    I was a total slacker in high school, but I don’t think that had anything to do with my TV watching practices. I’m still on dial-up so downloading a TV show would take longer than waiting for it to appear in syndication. I guess my main point is that TV, reading, movies, and video games are all different practices/activities and to mark one or the other as necessarily healthier or better seems based more on what one chooses to value than anything else….

  9. Cinemonster Said,

    April 26, 2005 @ 5:09 pm

    TV and the Victorian novel

    Chuck Tryon at The Chutry Experiment has been writing about a NY Times Magazine article by Steven Johnson called “Watching TV makes you smarter”. His posts do a great job of discussing the article and of linking to other discussions…

  10. carrie Said,

    May 1, 2005 @ 9:56 pm

    At the risk of self-promotion, I’ve written a critique of Steven Johnson’s article that might interest some of you.

    “Does watching TV make you stupid? Or just stupid enough to buy Steven Johnson’s premise?”

  11. Chuck Said,

    May 1, 2005 @ 11:10 pm

    Thanks for the link to your critique of Johnson’s article. As I implied, I don’t think Johnson is nearly attentive enough to the role of TV in delivering human attention to advertisers, and the “complicated narrative” argument is wearing increasingly thin for me.

    But I’m less prepared to replicate “culture industry” arguments that completely denigrate TV as a medium (not that you’re doing that). I really *should* be grading right now, so I’ll try to come back to some of these ideas later.

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