You’re all watching Sesame Street, now

So. I encountered this “TV” thing while on vacation (they had DirectTV at the hotel, and I needed the kids to stay put while packing and unpacking).

Now, obviously we watch some TV, mostly Minecraft videos and some educational things, but regular TV is something else.

It’s awful.

My kids actually demanded that we turn it off and maintained this policy through out the trip (even nixing Cartoon Network).

How do people watch this thing?

I didn’t find the basic content of the programs themselves objectionable. We saw a program featuring amateur music and dance numbers that had plenty of nice performances, for example. However, I find the way these programs are structured very unappealing:

  1. Onscreen clutter: For example, any news program will have scrolling tickers, waving flags, and other distracting, on-screen motion that has nothing to do with the things being discussed
  2. Frequent camera movement: Like the onscreen clutter, frequent camera movement and moving transitions between video clips keep changing what’s on the screen
  3. Too many cuts in the footage. This contributes both to visual clutter and makes it more difficult to keep track of what’s going on because subjects keep changing.
  4. Ads. Ads ads and more ads. They are guilty of all of the above and more.
  5. Many ads have the additional problem of making me feel like advertisers think I am an idiot, which makes me angry.
  6. We saw one ad on Cartoon Network in which kids (teens? I forget) made smoothies out of disgusting things and then drank them. This was not entertaining. This did not make my children want to watch the show being advertised. I have seen many absurd Youtube videos, but this took the cake.
  7. Filler.

I think it was Sesame Street that was first written with the idea that children have very short attention spans and thus the show needs to cut to something new every few minutes. This was obviously wrong, as kids will happily play for hours, day after day, with toys that they like. Crayons, bikes, slides, trains, dolls, trees, other kids–the average kid has no problem paying attention.

The difficulty was getting kids to pay attention to TV, which was still pretty new in the 60s and featured mostly black and white programs aimed at adults. Getting kids who wanted to go ride their bikes to pay attention to a black and white TV was hard. Sesame Street, as an educational project, began with the then-novel idea of using research on children to get them to pay attention so they could learn from the show. 

So they pioneered the technique of using frequent visual/narrative switches to constantly ping your “Hey! Pay attention!” reflex.

I don’t know what the technical term for this reflex is, or if it even has one, but you’ve surely noticed it if you’ve ever heard your name randomly spoken at a crowded dinner party. Here you were, conversing with one person, not paying attention to the other conversations around you, when suddenly, ping, you heard your name and your head snapped up. Your brain efficiently filters out all of the noise that you don’t want to listen to, but lets that one word–your name–through all of the gates and filters, up to the conscious level where it demands your attention.

Sudden scene changes, well, they don’t happen in nature. If the lake you are looking at suddenly transforms into a mountain in real life, something has gone very wrong. But things do suddenly move in nature–pouncing lions, fleeing gazelles, occasionally boulders falling down a mountain. Moving things are important, so we pay attention to them.

At least Sesame Street had good intentions. Car advertisers, not so much.

So now television programming and advertisements, in order to keep you from getting bored and wandering away, has been optimized to constantly ping your “pay attention!” reflex. They have hijacked your basic survival instincts in order to get you to watch them so you will watch their ads and so they can make money selling you things that you probably didn’t need in the first place (otherwise they wouldn’t have needed to work so hard to get you to watch their ads).

And you pay for this thing!

The whole thing is like a scaled down version of an arcade or casino, where the whole point is to get you to enjoy paying for the privilege of being separated from your money.

To be fair, I don’t hate all advertising. Sometimes it is useful. I understand that when I download some silly little free game, it has ads. The ads pay for the game, and since it’s on my tablet, I never have sound on and I can just put it down and ignore the ads. But I also spend very little time playing such games.

I feel like the whole thing is designed to turn your brain to jelly. If you thought for too long, you might realize that this entire storyline is stupid, that you’re wasting your time, that you don’t actually care about this thing on the news, and you’d really rather read a book or go for a walk. Instead the scene changes every few minutes so you never have time to concentrate on how meaningless it all is. (Yes, it’s all Harrison Bergeron, all the time.)

PS: Twitter’s bad for you, too.

Does advertising’s desire for young consumers drive ignorance?

The “rural purge” in American TV was the cancellation, between 1969 and 1972, of “everything with a tree in it.” Wikipedia lists 26 shows that were purged, everything from Lassie to Gunsmoke to Red Skelton. Some of these shows were probably declining anyway and would have been cancelled sooner or later, but most, like Hee Haw (#16 in the ratings), or Red Skelton (#7) were doing quite well.

According to Wikipedia, CBS’s original plans called for Gunsmoke–a TV and radio success since 1952–to be canceled at the end of the 1970-71 season, but Gunsmoke kept defying them by doing things like coming in #5 and #4 in the Nielsen Ratings; it didn’t get canceled until the end of the 1974/5 season, when it came in #28.

The entire cast was stunned by the cancellation, as they were unaware that CBS was considering it. According to Arness, “We didn’t do a final, wrap-up show. We finished the 20th year, we all expected to go on for another season, or two or three. The (network) never told anybody they were thinking of canceling.” The cast and crew read the news in the trade papers.[26]

Gunsmoke was replaced with Rhoda and Phyllis. Rhoda did well for two seasons; then it cratered. By season 5, it had sunk to #43 and was cancelled. Phyllis made it for an impressive two whole seasons, ending at #40.

If ratings didn’t drive the purge, then what did?

Advertisers.

Advertisers wanted TV shows that appealed to young people with money to spend and tastes to shape, not old people whose tastes and incomes were already fixed. (The same dynamic that lead tobacco companies to try to market cigarettes to children.) Everything that appealed to the wrong demographics–old people, rural people, poor people–got the axe. They were replaced with “relevant”show like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the Brady Bunch Comedy Hour, which everyone agreed was awful.

Amusingly, Congress–which tends to be full of old people–was upset about all of its favorite shows getting cancelled and replaced with programs aimed at 20-something single women and hippies. According to Wik:

The backlash from the purge prompted CBS to commission, perhaps somewhat facetiously, a rural family drama for its Fall 1972 schedule, but the network scheduled it in what it thought would be a death slot against popular series The Flip Wilson Show and The Mod Squad, allegedly hoping the show would underperform and head to a quick cancellation. Instead, The Waltons went on to run for nine seasons, reaching as high as second in the Nielsens and finishing in the top 30 for seven of its nine years on air.

Dude lives in a trash can.
Dude lives in a trash can.

Mary Tyler Moore only lasted for 7 seasons.

I suspect something similar happened in the late 80s/early 90s as the grittiness of our degraded cities, reflected in shows like Taxi, Sesame Street, and Welcome Back Kotter, began to distress watchers instead of inspire them, and networks began focusing on suburban comedies like The Cosby Show and Full House, but I have yet to find any articles on the subject. (This trend may have reversed again once Giulliani cleaned up NYC, resulting in shows like Seinfeld and Friends.)

 

“If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brains.” — Variously misattributed

While I wouldn’t describe younger me as a total idiot, there are certainly a great many things that I know now that I didn’t know back when Joe Camel ads were a thing or when I attended candle lit vigils for Darfur. That’s part of growing up and getting older: hopefully you learn something.

What happens when most TV programming for 40 or 50 years is intended to appeal primarily to people who don’t yet know much about the world?

It took quite a bit of rumination to come up with something better than “obviously they have trouble telling when the wool is being pulled over their eyes,” and “small children tend not to notice the pattern of kids’ TV shows making the black character the smartest one.” (I’d make a list except I don’t care that much, but I’ll note that even LazyTown, an Icelandic TV show, does it.)

So the non-obvious effect: People massively over-estimate the percent of the country that agrees with liberal values, and then are shocked by reality.

Basically, TV–a few cable stations excepted–functions like a great big liberal bubble.

For example:

42% of Americans are young-Earth creationists

27% of Americans–20% of Democrats and 44% of Republicans–favor deporting illegal immigrants. 39% of Americans favor amending the Constitution to end birthright citizenship; 41% believe immigrants are, on net, a burden.

17% believe the Bundy-led militia takeover of a building in Oregon was just.

40% of Americans oppose gay marriage.

60% of Republican primary voters think the US should should ban Muslims from entering the US; 45% of Democrats agree, so long as you don’t mention that it was Trump’s idea.

7/10 Republican presidential candidates favor getting into WWIII with Russia.

44% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 don’t know which country America gained its independence from. (Also, while 85% of men know the answer, only 69% of women managed the same feat.)

57% of Americans see the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, rather than racism; 43% oppose removing the Confederate flag from government buildings.

31% of Americans believe it is immoral to be transgender; 59% believe trans people should use the bathroom that corresponds to their birth gender.

If your perception of “normal” is based on the sitcoms you see on TV, chances are good that virtually all of these stats are surprising, because they don’t feature many young Earth creationists who fly the Confederate flag and want to start WWIII with Russia.

But given the structure of our electoral system–Republicans pick a candidate; Democrats pick a candidate; everyone gets together and we vote for the Republican or the Democrat–there’s a very good chance that about half the time, the president will actually agree with a variety of the positions listed above (except he’s pretty much guaranteed to know who we fought in the Revolution.) If you think that’s an absolutely horrible outcome, I recommend either advocating for massively changing the structure of the electoral system, or investigating some form of Neocameralism.

One of the more amusing experiences of the past few months has been watching people–both Democrats and Republicans–express outrage, shock, and confusion at Donald Trump’s success. Who could have predicted that “kick out illegal immigrants” might attract more voters than “Let’s all die in a war with Russia”? (Clearly not anyone paid to understand which issues appeal to voters.)

“It’s time we punched the Russians in the nose.”–Presidential candidate Gov. John Kasich

“Not only would I be prepared to do it, I would do it,” blurted Christie: … Yes, we would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots if in fact they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling … we have in the Oval Office … right now.”

Carly Fiorina would impose a no-fly zone and not even talk to Putin until we’ve conducted “military exercises in the Baltic States”

Lindsey Graham, …opined that he “would shoot [Putin’s] planes down, I would literally shoot his planes down”.

Ben Carson said of his call for a no-fly zone and Russian planes: “You shoot them down, absolutely” then added “Whatever happens next, we deal with it”.

There are a lot of people who would describe Trump as “literally Hitler” (which seems a little unfair to a guy whose daughter is Orthodox Jewish,) for wanting to deport illegal immigrants, temporarily halt Muslim immigration, and create some kind of Muslim registry, at least until we have fewer incidents like the San Bernardino Christmas Party shooting.

But on the scale of human suffering, I guarantee that a war with Russia would be far, far worse, and yet no one is protesting against that possibility, screaming that those candidates are going to start WWIII, nor even mildly concerned that the “mainstream” Republican candidates are so completely off their rockers, they make Trump look like a pacifist. (Here the Rand Paul supporters would like to point out that their candidate is also sane.)

Perhaps political commentators have become accustomed to Republicans starting wars and the threat of nuclear armageddon. Killing foreigners is a normal part of the Republican agenda–but trying to keep them out of the country? That’s completely novel. (Or at least, we haven’t done it since the 20s.)

Or perhaps people are mad because Trump is vocally anti-liberal and garners much of his support from people who hate liberals, and liberals had not realized just how many people really hate them.

Liberals must not get out very much.

I didn’t actually intend this to turn into a Trump post, but the subject is popular thee days. Had I written this in 2004, I’d have discussed the two young women I had just spoken with who swore up and down that George Bush couldn’t win reelection because “no one likes him.”

(As always, this blog makes no official political endorsements.)