April 25, 2005

Turn me ______…

This is turn-off-the-boob-tube week. Kid Rhetorica is bringing home a contract today from school that we’re all sign if our family chooses to participate.

Long-time Rhetorica readers know that I have a dim view of television as a medium for news. As entertainment, I can take it or leave it depending upon the quality of the shows that year. This year I’m not finding much of interest. The only shows I watch regularly are News Night With Aaron Brown and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

I think a good case can be made that TV is a difficult medium in which to practice journalism. Except for scratching the itch of immediacy, I think any citizen is better off reading the news rather than watching the news. I have no problem with TV as entertainment.

But could TV entertainment be making us smarter instead of dumber as the turn-off crusade would have us believe? Steven Johnson’s article in The New York Times Magazine claims that the public appetite for complex dramas has created a demand for a cognitively rich entertainment environment. So we must be getting smarter. Hmmmmmm…

The theory is interesting as far as it goes. And I have no doubt that more complex plots and ambiguous/witty word play do make the audience think more in order to enjoy these complex dramas. But TV cannot escape its biggest drawbacks to any claim of educational value: TV lacks interactivity, and it moves relentlessly forward without pause for reflection.

Complex dramas may encourage us to think more, but they cannot encourage us to think in more complex ways. We’re still just sitting there watching. No action is ever required of us. The only action possible is action that individual viewers may initiate for themselves, e.g. a discussion following a drama. I wonder how many such “water cooler” discussions involve, say, considerations of socio-political commentary rather than gossip regarding the characters as if they were real people.

Not that such entertainment and gossip is bad. It’s not. It’s entertainment. But is it making us smarter? I have my doubts.

Gimme that contract. I’ll sign.

One Response

  1. Does it really make sense to deeply consider the educational or cognitive-and-physical reinforcing value of entertainment TV?

    For example, is it one thing to say that entertainment TV relies less on superficial and titilating tactics, therefore engaging the viewer’s intellect and cognitive skills with more literary plots … and, for example … educational TV which engages the viewer in follow-along exercises, demonstrations and assigns homework?

    How does TIVO, Sesame Street, PBS ALS, Frontline, Nova, Distance Learning, TV in the classroom, …, fit (or not) in your TV as entertainment medium model?

  2. acline 

    S- I think it’s always important to think deeply about something that has the kind of effects on culture that TV has. So I’m interesting in this article. But I don’t think what he’s talking about is all that important considering the message of the medium.

    I’m not sure I understand the question you’re asking me.

    I’m against TV in the classroom.

  3. rgrafton 

    I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering who financed Steven Johnson’s research. Viacom? GE? Time-Warner? Enquiring minds want to know!

  4. acline 

    R- 🙂 Yeah, because there’s a distinct lack of academic credulity there, IMHO.

  5. re: I’m not sure I understand the question you’re asking me.

    OK, can we come back to it later?

    re: I’m against TV in the classroom.

    Why? Let me preface your answer with I am an advocate of multi-media classrooms and integrated TV, videotape, computer animation/educational software, …, in my lesson plans.

    I found sole use of the printed textbook, and reliance on two-dimensional static graphics on the page, woefully inadequate given the methods of communication available to me.

  6. On Channel Two

    Until I read Andy Cline’s entry at Rhetorica.net, I didn’t even know it was TV Turn-Off week.  I’ve already soaked up a few minutes of TV today, so I guess I blew that one.  Next year, next year.  Plus, with the NBA playoffs, forget it.&…

  7. acline 

    S- re: later Cool. Just let me know.

    I’m a fan of smart classrooms. Our journalism lab is set up to use all available technologies. I taught in smart classrooms at Park for two years. And I taught in the computer-mediated English lab at UMKC beginning in 1996.

    I have no problem using video of all sorts. I made great use of Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire last semester, for example.

    What I’m against is watching whole TV shows as a knowledge delivery method. I much prefer to use bits of video at a time and structure more active learning exercises around it, or use video critically, i.e. here’s an example of X, now let’s discuss.

  8. On Channel Two

    Until I read Andy Cline’s entry at Rhetorica.net, I didn’t even know it was TV Turn-Off week.  I’ve already soaked up a few minutes of TV today, so I guess I blew that one.  Next year, next year.  Plus, with the NBA playoffs, forget it.&…

  9. Channel Surfing

    Several other people have been sounding off on the Steven Johnson article I mentioned this afternoon, most of whom I found via this entry by Derek of Earth Wide Moth. Dana Stevens mentions a Salon interview with Adbusters editor Kalle…

  10. Sisyphus 

    “… I have a dim view of television as a medium for news.”

    “What I’m against is watching whole TV shows as a knowledge delivery method.”

    Then is your complaint with content format or the medium?

    If content format, then who made that choice?

  11. acline 

    S- I would argue that content format must follow what the medium dictates, i.e. there is very little choice.

  12. Sisyphus 

    re: “I would argue that content format must follow what the medium dictates, i.e. there is very little choice.”

    Aha!

    Now, this is an argument that I am very interested in hearing. It is important, to me, to hear your argument.

    Important in the way a serious student wants to transact on a topic that especially peeks his interest with someone he thinks can help him learn, discover and articulate his thoughts better.

    I have not been successful in getting you to engage in such a transaction, or at least that’s my impression. The closest I got was on February 6, 2005 12:21 AM, “I will give this layers idea serious consideration.”

    I see the infrastructural biases as the “dictates” of the medium. They consist of definitory and strategic rules that make that genre of medium recognizable.

    It is a upper layer “communication” protocol, above the structural biases. My previous question, put off to later, was an attempt to ask how TIVO, for example, might alter the infrastructural biases.

    I have tried to lay out an outline of this hypothesis here and posted it on my blog here, click on Excerpt).

    I would like to know if there is, IYO, research value there. Could there be an interdisciplinary thesis in rhetoric, information theory, …, or is it old news?

  13. acline 

    S- re: Aha!

    I’m happy to give you my argument, but you won’t find it much different from Postman’s re: medium and message. We may have to pick away at it a bit at a time, largely because it’s the end of the semester (student papers by the zillions), and I’m in the middle of writing/editing two essays (one of which I may talk about in a blog post later today).

    Quickly, to start, I need to add something to the following statement for clarity: “I would argue that content format must follow what the medium dictates, i.e. there is very little choice.” What I failed to say is that this assertion assumes that the communicator wants to use a particular medium in the most effective way and knows what that way is. For example, since TV is a picture-driven medium, one has a better chance of using the medium well by employing images than not. So the content is constrained in this way unless the communicator doesn’t care about the message or doesn’t know what the medium requires.

    I’ll try to keep this going based on your responses, but do me a favor: One or two questions at a time. I do want to have this conversation with you, but I can’t let it interfere with everything else that I’m doing now. Two weeks from now, this isn’t a problem. In fact, perhaps we’ll discuss this topic at length in Nashville in two weeks.

    re: research value

    You bet! Go for it! I might at some point. Right now I have several projects in the works that I must finish first.

  14. rgrafton 

    Dana Stevens agrees with you: http://slate.com/id/2117395/

  15. acline 

    R- Good catch! I missed that one. Yep…large areas of agreement there 🙂

  16. F. Simmons 

    Considering your previous post about interactive news, I find it interesting that you dismiss the idea that TV shows receive a larger degree of after-the-fact cognition. For instance, the recent flap about how mean “American Idol” has gotten reveals a certain degree of rhetorical analysis by the viewing public that was really not a regular part of TV watching 20 years ago. I think the lecture-vs-conversation holds just as true in this case. To answer your question, I don’t think we’re smarter, just a little less ignorant.