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.