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.