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The Idiot Box: The horror… the horror…

The Idiot Box: The horror… the horror…

I want to quote you the lead-in from the 9/21 article, “Television’s Social Evolution,” by technology writer Allan Hoffman in the business section of The Star-Ledger, the state paper where I live. Writes Hoffman:

Watch a sporting event on TV, and you sometimes feel like there’s hardly room to see the action, what with all the stats and promos marching across the screen in all their HD glory. But the other day, my wife decided there was actually something missing from the screen: a Twitter account…she had a question and she felt she should be able to tweet it straight to John McEnroe. This new attitude toward television is not an anomaly. In fact, it’s a trend, known as ‘social TV,’ that’s all about transforming television into a social experience.

I was working at HBO back in the 1990s when we decided to add a “bug” to our transmission – a little HBO logo down in a corner of the screen. The idea was to make sure that those channel cruisers zapping their way through the cable spectrum who stopped on one of our programs knew whose service they were watching (very important when the end of the month came around and they had to decide whether we were worth paying for for another month). Other channels were already doing it, but we’d initially resisted because HBO “didn’t do that sort of thing.” And then we did.

The purists howled the way purists do. After all, the HBO brag – before we developed a reputation for our original programming – was that we were going to bring you movies just the way you saw them in theaters. Well, the disgruntled grunted that they didn’t see movies in movie theaters with a “bug” down in the lower right hand corner.

And then we started speeding up the end credits a little bit…and then added voiceover promos for upcoming programs…and then started squeezing the credits to one side of the screen to squeeze a promo on to the other.

Flip your way through the cable rainbow now and you see that everybody does it…and so much more. There’s the bug, there’s a little action promo down in the lower part of the frame. God forbid you’re watching something with subtitles because they’ll get lost behind all that action along the bottom part of your screen.

But that’s nothing compared to the amount of information which gets crammed onto your screen on news channels: a talking head, stock ticker, headline crawl, graphic squeezed into one side of the screen…there are times you’re being fed two, three, four items simultaneously.

And then you have sports coverage. Rolling Stone recently did an in-depth look at what goes into the coverage of a single NFL game on ESPN (“More Show Than Game,” 9/27/12). With 31 cameras and 50 microphones spread around a stadium, and a crew of 200, ESPN coverage blends live-time game coverage with a variety of slo-mo replays, preproduced segments, and on-screen stats for everything and anything. All this turns a game that, according to a 2010 The Wall Street Journal study, on average, produces only 11 minutes of play action in three hours of coverage into a wall-to-wall, non-stop flow of visual stuff.

And now, says Hoffman, we’re moving into an age when you’ll get to talk to your TV. Oh, we always did that: we yelled, screamed, cursed and commented…only in the next evolutionary phase, the TV will talk back. Or at least someone will.

We’ve already been heading in that direction, writes Hoffman. People already tweet while watching; to the show, to each other, turning what had once been a monumentally passive experience into a social one. Writes Hoffman:

Social TV has been around, in one form or another, for several years, but now app developers, advertising agencies, gadget makers, TV networks and others with a stake in the future of television are encouraging consumers to pick up their tablet computers and phones when tuning into TV and engage with friends and strangers.

Great. It’s bad enough you can’t get people to sit still for two hours in a movie; now they want to yak their way through a night of TV, get to call a coach a dumbass in live time, tell Simon Cowell he’s a bullying prick, maybe even get to chime in during a presidential debate and call a candidate a commie or a clueless jillionaire.

For me, it’s been a rather startling evolution; only 15 years ago, what had been an annoyance around the edge of the screen has not only become the norm, but nearly overwhelmed the basic content. It demonstrates that not only do tastes change, but so do sensibilities. The same breathless pace which began with cable channel cruising and accelerated with videogames and the Internet and which has already infiltrated certain kinds of big-budget big screen action flicks is working its same transformational magic on TV.

But another news story – this one from Newsday’s John Hildebrand – running just a few days after Hoffman’s gave me pause for thought. Let me quote:

National reading scores on the SAT college-entrance exam have sunk to their lowest point in 40 years, and the proportion of test-takers deemed fully prepared for college remains flat at 43 percent…The average score on the exam’s critical reading section…dropped to 495 points…34 points down from 1972…Writing scores also dipped…from last year to 488 – the lowest result since an essay-writing section was added to the test in 2006.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the 40-year span in Hildebrand’s story dates to the launch of HBO which marks the beginning of the modern cable era. I won’t say there’s a direct connection, but there’s a disturbing parallel to the numbers: the more we’ve been given to watch, the less we read (and the less capable we seem to be of expressing ourselves in writing).

All that extra information being thrown at us – whether it’s the headline crawl on Fox News or CNN, or all those fancy stat graphics during any major sporting event – doesn’t seem to be doing us much good. Maybe there’s too much pumped out too incessantly. There’s no time for reflection, for analysis, for context. We know what’s going on, but do we really know what any of it means?

I’ve been teaching as a college adjunct for going on 2-1/2 years. When I teach freshman composition classes, I spend as much time doing remedial work as on the syllabus. I’ve had government majors who can’t name their own state’s governor, business majors who’ve never seen a copy of The Wall Street Journal, creative writing students who want to be famous authors without having to actually write something (let alone maybe learn how to write by reading), film students who can’t name more than a handful of titles pre-Independence Day (1996).

I asked one of my classes if they knew who we’d fought in World War II which, despite some groans about irrelevance and “Who cares?” I hear out there among you, is still worth remembering as it was not only the greatest conflict in the history of the world, but its aftereffects continue to shape global politics. Most had no clue; one daring fellow said, “France, because they kept changing sides.”

Here is a generation with access to the greatest informational tool since the Gutenberg printing press – the Internet – and a room full of them couldn’t name their loud, belligerent, combative governor who manages to get himself in the news every damned day.

So all that stuff jammed onto our TV screens (and phone screens and laptop screens et al), may take the form of information, but it’s not information we want. It’s eye fodder for a collective consciousness that has no down time, that looks at a moment of quiet not as a respite to get one’s thoughts in order, but as anathema, as the cardinal sin in a restless age which considers constant stimulation some kind of nirvana.

I know there’s a contradicting line of thought out there. Today’s computer-adept generation thinks quicker, takes in more information faster, has faster reflexes, all that stuff.

I get it. I don’t buy it, but I get it. I’ll concede this much: they’re great with a joystick (or finger pads or what have you). They’ll all make great fighter pilots.

Ok, fighter pilots are nice to have. But more valuable still: the people informed and wise enough to keep us out of situations where we need fighter pilots.

Look, I don’t want to sound like a Luddite or something. Pop-up trivia can make a movie that’s already run a thousand times on AMC interesting again, and I’ll admit, I don’t mind watching something during all that dead time in a football game besides 22 slabs of beef scratch themselves and swat each other on the ass.

But do we need more stuff on our screens? I’m thinking maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to actually turn them off once in a while. Just once in a while. Maybe pick up a book. Read a newspaper. Go for a walk in the park and hear what the world sounds like.

It’s been a while for some of you. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

– Bill Mesce