Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Media Content is Becoming More Complex, More Socially Involving

So much of what critics of media industry structure harp on is how the big media players dumb down the media. They’re only interested in earnings, goes the litany, so they pander to the lowest common denominator. We are becoming a nation of couch potatoes. Video games teach violence and take kids away from what they should be doing after school—homework and watching C-Span.

Now along comes a book, from an author with solid credentials and no obvious political agenda, that turns these arguments on their head. The best of television today is far more engaging, complex, and brain exercising than television has ever been before. Even the lower rungs of programming are better than the their equivalents 10 or more years ago. The best selling video games, it turns out, are those that stimulate the most thinking and involvement. The Internet augments and magnifies the richness of other media. In essence “Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter,” the title of Steven Johnson's latest book.

As you are among a small self-selected audience that is reading this Blog, you may already be of a predisposition to have read Johnson’s book. If not, you will be at a huge disadvantage in any discussion of media ownership and structure. Because one of Johnson’s central tenets is that the content of the mass media has risen to new highs in narrative structure, in sophistication and intellectual development because of the increase in competition among the media. He makes a convincing argument that the marketplace—economics—is one of the major forces driving the change (the changing neurology of the brain and changing technology platforms are the other two).

Johnson develops his themes through 210 fast paced pages, so I cannot do them justice in this brief entry. But here are a few of his assertions—all backed by substantive exposition:

• He has dubbed his most central argument The Sleeper Curve—after the 1973 movie in which Woody Allen’s character in Sleeper awakes 100 years in the future where he finds chocolate has been determined to be a health food. In similar fashion, Johnson holds that today’s most debased forms of mass culture—video games, television drama and sitcoms—turn out to be “nutritional after all.”

For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably…because big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.

• Johnson compares television's popular dramas of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Dallas and the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, with today’s dramas, such as The West Wing, The Sopranos and 24. The latter group have substantially more multithreaded plots, a larger number of regular characters, more sophisticated relations among the characters and fewer obvious “flashing arrows” to tell viewers what’s important and what’s ephemeral. Viewers have to deal with far more ambiguity and fill in many more blanks around the plots than in the old narratives. In short, they have to think far more as they watch and after each episode ends.

The reason that these newer narrative forms are so attractive to the producers is that, like a good book, they reveal themselves further with repeated viewings. Viewers of Seinfeld, the successful situation comedy, find nuance, references to long ago plots and similar discoveries on second and third viewings. Thus, producers have found that the syndication value of these programs is enhanced because repeated viewing is actually sought after by the audience. Moreover, DVD sales of these programs are a new source of revenue precisely because they stand up to repeated viewing. Johnson calls this model MRP—Most Repeatable Programming. This replaces the old model from the days of only three networks, LOP—Least Objectionable Programming. Which stands up better to repeated viewing, Happy Days or Friends?

Even the programming that is often derided as crass, such as the reality shows, has redeeming qualities far in excess of the programming of yore, such as The Price is Right. "The Apprentice may not be the smartest show in the history of television, but it nonetheless forces you to think while you watch it, to work through the social logic of the universe it creates….” People actually discuss the strategies used by contestants on the reality shows. “You don’t zone out in front of shows like The Apprentice. You play along.” Apple’s Steve Jobs calls this type of media “sit foward,” rather than the "leaning back" media that characterized most television programming in the past.

Johnson’s conclusion is that “dumbing down” is not the natural state for popular culture. It is just the opposite. Like the overlooked trend of increased media competition rather than less, in media-mediated culture far more trends are pointing up. It’s a state of affairs that even a cultural elitist should support.

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