Television may be the greatest civilization-altering invention to date. It has changed our perception of the world around us — as an entertainment, an educational and a communications medium — and of the way we think and behave. But this is not a one-way street! Society, in turn, has exerted its influence on the way the medium is employed. The way we use and treat the technology provides an interesting insight into the changes that are taking place within our minds and society as a whole. It’s worth speculating on a few of these.
I guess the starting point is that we seem to have become a society where greed, augmented by technological innovation, plays an increasingly important role. Its impact on television probably is most noticeable in the extreme concentration on viewership and advertising revenues. Like so many industries, this one seemingly began with people who were focused on the technology and what it could do. Eventually, as it matured and became more of a business, the leadership transferred to finance and marketing — to a point today where one might argue that content is almost unimportant except in-so-far as it results in high numbers of viewers and high ad income.
There is a dichotomy in that last statement. If programming attracts high viewership and ad revenues, then it would seem that television is delivering what the people want — and therefore performing an extremely useful service to society. So perhaps this formulation, if accurate, says more about us than it does about the industry. But there is another side to the story.
Commitment to viewers: There was a time when a show committed to a certain run. Program series were designed differently. Most provided either an unfolding and continuous storyline or individual, stand-alone presentations. That started to change when “Dallas” ended its season with a teaser, “who shot JR,” designed to lure viewers back the next season. That ploy was so successful that it began a trend, where each show in a series now tries to end with a cliff-hanger, so people will tune in to the next episode. Cancellation of a series, in this latter mode, can leave viewers feeling extremely unhappy or even angry.
Complexity and cancellation: More recently, one of the devices used (Lost was an excellent example) has been to weave strange, intriguing threads throughout the story — lots of flashbacks and eventual explanations of some of the mysteries (if you watch long enough). For those who get hooked on a series of this nature and start investing considerable time in waiting for the “solutions,” there is no letting go.
All well and good if the series runs to its conclusion and wraps things up. But, as viewership starts to wane, the networks have little hesitation to terminate a series based solely on economic calculations. Loyalty to the viewer be damned. The point is that the viewers have come to expect this type of behavior, so there is little penalty (e.g. a viewer boycott). Numerous shows, whose plots depend and are built upon prior episodes, are just terminated in mid season.
Intellectual satisfaction: There is an even more “suspect” nature of this behavior pattern. The idea is to capture the viewer with all of the twists and turns, where the key is an intellectual exercise in figuring out how all the pieces will eventually fit together. There seems to be a naïve expectation that writers will bring mysteries to successful conclusions. But was the writer’s main skill the creation of puzzles? Did he/she have any concept of how to pull things together – or would the solution be found by extending the show until cancellation was invoked – thereby eliminating the need to make it all at least somewhat coherent. A nice ride, while it lasted.
Concentration: In a recent Los Angeles Times interview, James Wong, the writer of one such series, “The Event,” described how his daughter was turned off by “all the flashbacks” in the show. The interview went on to talk about people who “don’t want to have to think.” An explanation given was that “digital-age audiences don’t focus solely on their TV screens these days.” People are multi-tasking, working on other media (cell phones, etc.) Consequently, they can’t follow a tight story-line. Survivor shows, talent shows and the like don’t suffer from this “defect.”
Competition: Now we start to get into the games. How do you compete? The answer is you become what would have been formerly considered “anti-social.” A type of “all’s fair in love and war.” You start or finish your programs a few minutes before or after the hour (forcing people who use TiVos and similar devices to make a choice). But in all fairness to the networks, you discover that you are at war with people who fast forward through your commercials — undercutting the desires of your advertisers. So you make the commercials look like part of the show, or you move to more product placements within the content of the programming.
Direction: The impact of all of this is driving TV more towards reality shows, talk shows, talent shows — relatively low budget efforts that don’t require much concentration, but provide the type of entertainment that much of the viewing public wants — and are easily terminable.
Accuracy: One of the major transformations that TV made in our lives related to news. Today it brings the news scene (be it a battlefield or some natural calamity) right into our living rooms, and although the Internet may be faster, it is still hard to compete against visual images. However, once again, in the interest of commerce, “fast” and “sensational” often trump thoroughness and accuracy. And as newspapers shrink and disappear, TV and other electronic media are playing increasing roles in conveying information to the public. An informed public is only as informed as the information they receive is accurate.
We need to look at the present-day communications environment. There are major issues relating to integrity, reliability, and just common human courtesy that need to be addressed — yet no one seems to be giving it much attention. Like so many other important matters, we tend to let things evolve on their own, with blithe faith in the future that everything will work out for the best, while ignoring clear signs that certain elements of our society seem to becoming more dysfunctional. What we watch, how we watch it, and how we communicate with each other will largely determine the health of our society.
Clearly, more research needs to be done on this topic — starting with television and extending into the myriad of usages of the Telephone and Internet that now proliferating with lives of their own. Time for a communications czar?
Post Script: I just received an e-mail from a friend which ended with a most apt Chinese proverb: “If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed!”
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.