Apr 18, 2014

TV as Mental Nourishment: It’s All in the Attitude by James Thumb

Steven Johnson makes the daring assertion in his essay "Watching TV Makes You Smarter" an excerpt from his book Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005) that TV is getting more intellectually challenging. According to him, modern TV now challenges the mind in ways similar to reading. He argues that even "trash" TV has improved over the years. If one compares the "trash" of today to that of thirty years ago, he asserts that current TV shows are more complex than older shows. TV has introduced more complex narratives, interweaving plot threads, and more complex character schematics. This complexity, he claims, makes TV watching a rewarding and mentally healthy activity. He further states that a parent should “encourage '24' over 'Law and Order'” for his or her child because 24 is a more intricate show. Johnson concludes that parents should judge their children's TV viewing not by the violent content or moral depravity but rather by the complexity of the show.

I argue that TV watching is not mentally healthy solely because it is now more complicated. If TV watching is mentally healthy now then it would be true that it has always been. Intellectual stimulation can occur in all facets of life. The stimulus does not matter to the intellectual for the intellectual can sometimes gain more from the back of his or her eyelids than from a complex novel. Johnson makes a logical fallacy when he assumes that complexity will lead to mental nourishment. When it comes to TV watching it is not what you watch but how you watch. A parent cannot justify allowing his or her child to watch numerous hours of TV because the TV show is complex. I am not arguing here that TV is not complex and intricate. I am not comparing TV to literature as that would be comparing two completely different mediums of entertainment. TV can be mentally stimulating, but that is not because it has multiple plots and more subtle narratives. It is not because it has complex character networks or uses technological jargon. All media types can be compatible with learning and any TV show can be compatible with learning.

Johnson is right that TV can be very content heavy but he overlooks a critical problem: TV takes more time to watch. One of the benefits of TV that Johnson points out is that often times the show will have plot lines that continue through numerous episodes. I am a fairly active viewer of the TV show Doctor Who. I've seen how that show has been able to combine a single plot each episode with a longer plot that typically gets started and resolved within a season, or about 12 episodes. The seasons themselves have plot lines that weave through. Often times a character that the viewer hasn't seen in quite a while will come into a new episode and deliver a critical plot development. I, as a viewer, enjoy this; it rewards me for my show loyalty. Johnson points out that TV is now often sold as anthology collections on DVD. I can now buy the last season of Doctor Who to watch again on my own time. Both of these developments, the long plot lines and the DVD sales, have clear economic incentives. TV producers make money off my now intense loyalty.  Johnson critiques simple TV shows that follow a similar plot format every episode. But the beautiful thing about those simple shows is that the viewer does NOT have to watch every episode, or re-watch episodes. I can sit down and watch a single episode of, for example, “Friends” and enjoy it and then never watch another episode ever again. This is not possible with many modern TV shows; if I was to watch a single episode of “The West Wing” I would be lost and confused (I assume based on how complex Johnson says it is). Modern technology has given TV the economic incentive to become more complex, but it also demands consumers to be more loyal to their favorite shows. The viewer needs to balance his or her time watching TV with other activities. I have a friend who told me in great detail the overall theme of the works of Woody Allen. I’m a big fan of Allen’s movies and I was agreeing with my friend’s statements. It turns out he had only ever seen one of Allen’s movies, and only the first half of it! He had given it enough thought that he was able to discover Allen’s themes, recurring elements, characters, symbolisms, and so on . The viewer shouldn't have to spend hundreds of hours watching “Doctor Who” to get mental stimulation from it.

Johnson assumes that viewers will exercise their minds due to the complexity of modern TV. I do not think this is a fair statement. Just because modern TV is harder to follow does not mean that the viewer will put more effort into the show. I am sure that there are a lot of very attentive and active viewers of TV but I am not alone when I say that I typically put on the TV to relax. TV gets turned on at the end of a long day of school or work, it’s a mental spa. The viewers that follow this behavior would be wrong to claim, in any way, that TV is making them smarter. It is up to the individual to participate in the story and to decide whether or not the TV is beneficial. The issue with children watching TV is in the hands of the parents. I would allow my child to watch Doctor Who with me, if afterwards we discussed the plot and the characters; thus proving that the child did pay attention and analyzed the content. It’s the discussion and the thought after the watching that makes the difference between being a passive TV slug and an intellectual mental live-wire.

TV can be an intellectually stimulating activity, Johnson is correct in that regard. The viewer must still be cautious about the amount of time spent watching TV. The viewer should take action as to not become a modern day Don Quixote. By this I mean that even healthy activities, like reading or watching TV, can be harmful if they take up too much of your life. The viewer also needs to be a good judge of the amount of cognitive thought going in to the activities. Literature has an advantage in that regard, it’s much harder to sleep through a book than a TV show. In conclusion, TV watching is a nutritious activity if the viewer has the right attitude.

James Thumb
Watching smart people TV in Penticton, BC
December 2013

Read Johnson's essay here