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.

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Why do people watch so much TV?

Honestly, left to my own devices, I wouldn’t own a TV. (With Mythbusters canceled, what’s the point anymore?)

Don’t get me wrong. I have watched (and even enjoyed) the occasional sitcom. I’ve even tried watching football. I like comedies. They’re funny. But after they end, I get that creeping feeling of emptiness inside, like when you’ve eaten a bowl of leftover Halloween candy instead of lunch. There is no “meat” to these programs–or vegan-friendly vegetable protein, if you prefer.

I do enjoy documentaries, though I often end up fast-forwarding through large chunks of them because they are full of filler shots of rotating galaxies or astronomers parking their telescopes or people… taalkiiing… sooo… sloooowwwwlllly… And sadly, if you’ve seen one documentary about ancient Egypt, you’ve seen them all.

Ultimately, time is a big factor: I am always running short. Once I’m done with the non-negotiables (like “take care of the kids” and “pay the bills,”) there’s only so much time left, and time spent watching TV is time not spent writing. Since becoming a competent writer is one of my personal goals, TV gets punted to the bottom of the list, slightly below doing the dishes.

Obviously not everyone writes, but I have a dozen other backup projects for when I’m not writing, everything from “read more books” to “volunteer” to “exercise.”

I think it is a common fallacy to default to assuming that other people are like oneself. I default to assuming that other people are time-crunched, running on 8 shots of espresso and trying to cram in a little time to read Tolstoy and get the tomatoes planted before they fall asleep. (And I’m not even one of those Type-A people.)

Obviously everyone isn’t like me. They come home from work, take care of their kids, make dinner, and flip on the TV.

Why?

An acquaintance recently made a sad but illuminating comment regarding their favorite TV shows, “I know they’re not real, but it feels like they are. It’s like they’re my friends.”

I think the simple answer is that we process the pictures on the TV as though they were real. TV people look like people and sound like people, so who cares if they don’t smell like people? Under normal (pre-TV) circumstances, if you hung out with some friendly, laughing people every day in your living room, they were your family. You liked them, they liked you, and you were happy together.

Today, in our atomized world of single parents, only children, spinsters and eternal bachelors, what families do we have? Sure, we see endless quantities of people on our way to work, but we barely speak, nod, or glance at each other, encapsulated within our own cars or occupied with checking Facebook on our cellphones while the train rumbles on.

As our connections to other people have withered away, we’ve replaced them with fake ones.

Google “America’s Favorite Family“:

OZZIE & HARRIET: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was the first and longest-running family situational comedy in television history. The Nelsons came to represent the idealized American family of the 1950s – where mom was a content homemaker, dad’s biggest decision was whether to give his sons the keys to the car, and the boys’ biggest problem was getting a date to the high school prom. …When it premiered, Ozzie & Harriet: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family was the highest-rated documentary in A&E’s history.

(According to Wikipedia, Ozzie and Harriet started on the radio back in the 30s, got a comedy show (still on radio) in 1944, and were on TV from 1952-1966.) It was, to some extent, about a real family–the actors in the show were an actual husband and wife + their kids, but the show itself was fictionalized.

It even makes sense to people to ask them, “Who is your favorite TV personality?“–to which the most common answer isn’t Adam Savage or James Hyneman, but Mark Harmon, who plays some made-up guy named Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

The rise of “reality TV” only makes the “people want to think of the TV people as real people they’re actually hanging out with” all the more palpable–and then there’s the incessant newsstand harping of celebrity gossip. The only thing I want out of a movie star (besides talent) is that I not recognize them; it appears that the only thing everyone else wants is that they do recognize them.

According to The Way of the Blockbuster: In entertainment, big bets on likely winners rule:

in Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, the new book by Anita Elberse, Filene professor of business administration. Elberse (el-BER-see) spent 10 years interviewing and observing film, television, publishing, and sports executives to distill the most profitable strategy for these high-profile, unpredictable marketplaces. … The most profitable business strategy, she says, is not the “long tail,” but its converse: blockbusters like Star Wars, Avatar, Friends, the Harry Potter series, and sports superstars like Tom Brady.

Strategically, the blockbuster approach involves “making disproportionately big investments in a few products designed to appeal to mass audiences,” … “Production value” means star actors and special effects. … a studio can afford only a few “event movies” per year. But Horn’s big bets for Warner Brothers—the Harry Potter series, The Dark Knight, The Hangover and its sequel, Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, Sherlock Holmes—drew huge audiences. By 2011, Warner became the first movie studio to surpass $1 billion in domestic box-office receipts for 11 consecutive years. …

Jeff Zucker ’86 put a contrasting plan into place as CEO at NBC Universal. In 2007 he led a push to cut the television network’s programming costs: … Silverman began cutting back on expensive dramatic content, instead acquiring rights to more reasonably priced properties; eschewing star actors and prominent TV producers, who commanded hefty fees; and authorizing fewer costly pilots for new series. The result was that by 2010, NBC was no longer the top-rated TV network, but had fallen to fourth place behind ABC, CBS, and Fox, and “was farther behind on all the metrics that mattered,” writes Elberse, “including, by all accounts, the profit margins Zucker and Silverman had sought most.” Zucker was asked to leave his job in 2010. …

From a business perspective, “bankable” movies stars like Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, or George Clooney function in much the way Harry Potter and Superman do: providing a known, well-liked persona.

So people like seeing familiar faces in their movies (except Oprah Winfrey, who is apparently not a draw:

the 1998 film Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey, based on Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s eponymous 1987 novel and directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme … flopped resoundingly: produced for $80 million, it sold only $23 million in tickets.

Or maybe Beloved isn’t just the kind of feel-good action flick that drives movie audiences the way Batman is.)

But what about sports?

Here I am on even shakier ground than sitcoms. I can understand playing sports–they’re live action versions of video games, after all. You get to move around, exercise, have fun with your friends, and triumphantly beat them at something. (Or if you’re me, lose.) I can understand cheering for your kids and being proud of them as they get better and better at some athletic skill (or at least try hard at it.)

I don’t understand caring about strangers playing a game.

I have no friends on the Yankees or the Mets, the Phillies or the Marlins. I’ve never met a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Clemson Tigers, and I harbor no illusions that my children will ever play on such teams. I feel no loyalty to the athletes-drawn-from-all-over-the-country who play on my “hometown” team, and I consider athlete salaries vaguely obscene.

I find televised sports about as interesting as watching someone do math. If the point of the game is to win, then why not just watch a 5-minute summary at the end of the day of all the teams’ wins and losses?

But according to The Way of the Blockbuster:

Perhaps no entertainment realm takes greater care in building a brand name than professional sports: fan loyalty reliably builds repeat business. “The NFL is blockbuster content,” Elberse says. “It’s the most sought-after content we have in this country. Four of the five highest-rated television shows [in the United States] ever are Super Bowls. NFL fans spend an average of 9.5 hours per week on games and related content. That gives the league enormous power when it comes to negotiating contracts with television networks.”

Holy shit. No wonder Borders went under.

Elberse has studied American football and basketball and European soccer, and found that selling pro sports has much in common with selling movies, TV shows, or books. Look at the Real Madrid soccer club—the world’s richest, with annual revenues of $693 million and a valuation of $3.3 billion. Like Hollywood studios, Real Madrid attracts fan interest by engaging superstars—such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese forward the club acquired from Manchester United for a record $131.6 million in 2009. “We think of ourselves as content producers,” a Real Madrid executive told Elberse, “and we think of our product—the match—as a movie.” As she puts it: “It might not have Tom Cruise in it, but they do have Cristiano Ronaldo starring.

In America, sports stars are famous enough that even I know some of their names, like Peyton Manning, Serena Williams, and Michel Jackson Jordan.

I think the basic drive behind people’s love of TV sports is the same as their love of sitcoms (and dramas): they process it as real. And not just real, but as people they know: their family, their tribe. Those are their boys out there, battling for glory and victory against that other tribes’s boys. It’s vicarious warfare with psuedo armies, a domesticated expression of the tribal urge to slaughter your enemies, drive off their cattle and abduct their women. So what if the army isn’t “real,” if the heroes aren’t your brother or cousin but paid gladiators shipped in from thousands of miles away to perform for the masses? Your brain still interprets it as though it were; you still enjoy it.

Football is man-fiction.