Evaluating TV Smarts in the Public Sphere

by: Allison McCracken / DePaul University

Book Cover
Everything Bad is Good for You

The April 24th edition of The New York Times Magazine carried an intriguingly titled article, “Watching TV Makes You Smarter.” As is common to the Times, the article was an excerpt from a new book by cultural critic Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Since the Times piece, the book has become the media darling of many in the liberal media establishment, which has run feature stories and positive reviews of Johnson’s “provocative” and even “brilliant” thesis: that television is valuable because of the “cognitive workout” its formal complexities offer the viewer. Johnson’s defense of popular media is, not surprisingly, a welcome relief for liberals weary of most media effects studies, which serve both high cultural elitists and conservatives by emphasizing television’s infantilizing properties and/or its promotion of violence and indecency.

But what interests me about the public embrace of Johnson’s work and why I think it is important to examine, are the terms of his defense of television and what they reveal about the place of television studies in the public sphere. Unlike television critics who want to endorse certain programs as art or as ethically or morally superior, Johnson’s approach offers a cognitive blueprint for television studies that evaluates programs based on their structural complexity and their promotion of strategy skills. This approach certainly has its shortcomings as a method (its almost exclusively textual focus and ahistorical nature), but it could valuably be employed to shake up the current television canon. After all, if we’re going to utilize an approach that removes the industrial, generic, historical and political context of television programs to focus on formal elements, shouldn’t that make possible a new kind of textual adultery that would question or at least expose our assumptions about television quality? In such a study, soap operas and Court TV could be considered as the structural equals of prime time dramas and children’s programming could be evaluated against the ABC Evening News (I suspect Blue’s Clues would fare very well). Sounds promising, yes?

Would that were the case. Instead, we find ourselves with yet another argument as to why The Sopranos is the best show in television history (and do we really need another one?) Far from breaking new ground with his analysis, Johnson’s argument replicates and reinforces existing social hierarchies in television discourse by providing yet another method with which to validate an elitist, masculinist, capitalist view of what is valuable about the box and its audience. Johnson’s biases – ones shared by many tv critics, viewers and, I’ll warrant, more than a few scholars – are most obvious in his definitions of “complexity and “intelligence,” as well as the kinds of “strategies” and “pleasures” he argues TV teaches and the value judgments he attaches to his results.

To wit:
Complexity and Intelligence: A television text is complex, according to Johnson, based on how many narrative threads it has operating at any one time, its degree of seriality, how much information it conveys, and the number of characters in motion. Quantity over quality is important here — the more plot threads, the more info, the more characters, the more intensely serial — the more complex and therefore better the text. Soap operas, which get drive-by mention here as important original texts in this regard, have been replaced by “smarter” programs with more narrative threads, more characters, and more plot. This scheme results in Johnson’s elevating a ludicrously overplotted program like 24 to Shakespearean proportions, while giving no acknowledgment of the kinds of complexity that are defined by depth rather than breadth. Depth is most easily demonstrated in programs that focus on relationships between people or single ethical or social dilemmas rather than a relentless move through plot points. And depth is often difficult to achieve in programs that are overpopulated. Simply having many characters does not make for a “complex social network,” especially if those characters are thinly drawn (as in 24). Johnson fails to recognize that the psychological shifts in individuals and the social reverberations taking place among couples and small groups also constitute complexity, just as the presentation of an ethical or social problem on any non-serial program can solicit complex analyses. Roseanne may only have six characters, yet the relationships between them and the cultural critique the program offers is as or more complex as any episode of The Sopranos.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that character depth and relationship complexity are considered feminine tv territory, and “social problem” or genre programs generally mass or low art. But more than a gender or low art bias seems to be at work when Johnson neglects to mention HBO’s Oz or The Wire — surely the most complex of serial/action programs according to Johnson’s criteria. The critiques of normative white masculinity these shows offer (reflected in the class, racial and sexual diversity of their casts) would seem to make them arguably more complex than The Sopranos, yet Johnson follows the lead of many critics by neglecting to mention or promote them. This omission suggests that the level of social critique a program makes is not a marker of complexity in Johnson’s schema, and therefore tellingly not a factor in determining whether the program should be recommended to smarten audiences.

Intelligence and Strategy: Johnson provocatively states that most programs associated with quality television don’t actually help make you smarter because “there’s no intellectual labor involved,” since the intelligence in programs like Mary Tyler Moore and Frasier is already on the screen. Thus, intelligence here, again, is not about relationship depth or complexity or social critique (upon which much comedy depends), or even the kinds of social knowledge some audiences might be getting by watching Will and Grace. Such narrative fictions are merely “absorbed,” according to Johnson, but overpopulated serials and reality programs “engage the mind.” Johnson’s argument about reality programs is particularly revealing because he suggests that reality tv (like the video games he also defends) encourages its audience to strategize and evaluate the strategies of others. At long last, emotion makes an appearance when Johnson argues that reality programs encourage a kind of “emotional intelligence,” but only so audiences can better read the emotions of contestants in order to figure out who’s going to win. Reality television, concludes Johnson, is thus more engaging and makes us smarter than traditional narratives which also “trigger emotional connections to characters” because “traditional narratives aren’t about strategy.”

The social values being promoted here are clear: attention to emotion and social relationships on television (feminine values) is only really good for us if it is linked in some way to strategy and competition (masculine values). Certainly, strategic thinking “engages the mind”– but what does it engage the mind to do? Apparently, it teaches us to better read people’s emotions so we can more efficiently leave them in our dust as we climb the ladder of success. But do we really want to be training a nation of Karl Roves? Because Johnson’s “smart” television privileges the individual over the community, he never suggests the ways in which emotional or social awareness might also be valuable because it offers insight into other people, ways to build community, to bridge difference, and to create mutual understanding. Instead, Johnson’s television follows the good old-fashioned Protestant work ethic, in which the “mental labor” of watching the Apprentice pays off handsomely in the Big Boardroom of Life.

Pleasure: Although primarily concerned with the text, Johnson does at times address the existence of an audience. Not surprisingly, television’s “smart” viewers are interested in “challenging their minds” by “solving puzzles, detecting patterns, or unpacking complex narrative systems.” As proof, Johnson points to the many television internet chat sites where audiences dissect the plot points of “more complicated shows” like Lost or Alias. In this claim, Johnson ignores a whole history of creative fan activity surrounding television, in which underground fanzines as well as other types of creative activity have been flourishing for years. But such evidence doesn’t fit into an argument about “smart” tv which depends on the evolution of “complex” texts worthy of being decoded at length. The fact that most television fans have been 1) female, 2) engaged with narrative pleasures other than strategy and structural complexity, 3) not afraid to call themselves fans (a term Johnson never employs), and 4) unconcerned with proving their “smarts” indicates the exclusiveness and narrowness of Johnson’s argument.

Again, however, I single out Johnson only because his point of view is so representative of pervading trends in liberal television studies. Indeed, his argument is particularly seductive because it justifies the work of TV critics, scholars and quality audiences who have spent their lives arguing for television’s complexity in the face of continual dismissal from cultural authorities. Indeed, even some of my television studies colleagues have argued with me about the superiority of texts like Lost or Alias on the basis of their structural complexity, as if that alone determined their cultural significance. But, ultimately, such an approach seems to me to undermine the original purpose of popular culture studies: to pay attention to that which is not deemed “good for you” in order to validate and better understand the social lives of non-elites.

Image Credits:
1. Everything Bad is Good for You

Center for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image
Television and Cognitive Development

Please feel free to comment.


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  • plug-in drug

    This reminds me of old school rhetortic against television as b eing “the plug in drug”… The cyclical nature of these kinds of debates means that we could be having a very different conversation just a little bit down the road. To that end, I am somewhat reluctant to cast Johnson’s book as anything other than “the tv studies of the moment”. But AMc’s column raises the important point that too often tv scholars canonize texts on seemingly subjective bases. While there needs to be a way around this, I don’t know that Johnson’s means is the way….

  • smarts

    McCracken is right to point out the over-simplicity of Johnson’s many-plot-lines = makes-you-smarter equation and the conspicuous absense of character-depth as a complexity-determining factor. Nevertheless, I think its a bit rash to dismiss his entire argument b/c of this oversight.

    I find McCracken’s idea of including “level of social critique” as criteria for complexity to be problematic. Whether or not a show like “Oz” or “The Wire” challenges the viewer is contingent on whether or not the viewer is receptive to “critiques of normative white masculinity.” I suspect that a person who bothers to tune in to either of these shows week after week already believes in such a critique. Though people of various political/critical persuasions like to have their beliefs challenged occassionally, I doubt that they would watch a show week-in-week-out that didn’t reinforce their beliefs.

    While Mr. Johnson claims that narrative complexity may make the viewer smarter, and that such TV is more “nutritional,” he never writes that such TV is “better.” While it may seem nit-picky to point this out (doesn’t nutritional = better?), I think that saying that he ascribed a value judgment like that when he, in fact, did not is a classic “straw man” argument tactic that should be avoided.

    Probably the most unfortunate thing about Johnson’s article is its use of the word “smarter.” I think words like “intelligence” and “smarter” have become so loaded (like “truth,” “justice,” and “common good”) that they have become these fulcrums of power that mean whatever the writer or reader chooses. But as we argue over the definition of “intelligence” and “success,” life goes on, and time after time, certain people w/ certain habits (the habit of reading, for one) become more successful at what they do, whether that’s eloquently, convincingly defending the white hetero patriarchy or eloquently, convincingly ripping it apart. The question is: is watching complex narratives one of these habits that result in a mastery of language and rhetoric that, as far as I can tell, one cannot succeed w/o. Debating the definitions of “intelligence” and “success” is a must, but the world defines these terms day-to-day out of necessity. To spend all of one’s time wishing that these definitions could remain permanently fuzzy is to destine one’s self to irrelevancy.

    We can only get to the bottom of whether Johnson is on to something by devoting time and resources to studying the cognitive work done by viewers, and by amending ideas instead of tearing them down. McCracken’s article reads like a call to replace, rather than supplement, narrative complexity w/ emotional complexity. I believe Johnson’s article was only intended as a provocative think piece, a good (but flawed) beginning.

  • To dissent…

    First let me praise Allison for taking a strong stand here – and inviting us to disagree with her. As a friend, and someone who has recently argued with her “about the superiority of texts like Lost or Alias on the basis of their structural complexity,” I respectfully disagree with many of her arguments she puts forward here – and these issues echo many of the points I’ll be raising in my own Flow column in two weeks! But I wanted to point to two major questions here:

    Allison suggests that the “liberal media” has been falling over itself to praise Johnson, but aside from a glowing review in the New Yorker and the NYTimes coverage, I don’t see it. What I see more is a number of blogs (like StayFree.org and comments on stevenberlinjohnson.com) attacking him on neo-Postman terms – how dare he praise TV! I’m curious where she sees the celebration (aside from standard book selling gigs & press).

    Second & more relevant to this site, Allison suggests that Johnson’s work represents a trend in TV studies – again, I don’t see it. The scholarship I see dealing with programming (i.e. not focused primarily upon technological, industrial, or reception issues) is nearly all interpretive analysis of cultural representation. Where is this trend of scholarship that explores cognitive activities, formal elements, or even evaluative criticism that Allison refers to? Sure, there are a host of analyses of programs like Buffy, Simpsons, X-Files, Sopranos and Alias – but they mostly frame their accounts on cultural analysis, not the evaluative criticism condemned here (or at least explicit evaluations).

    I believe the generally negative reaction I’ve perceived Johnson getting in the “liberal media studies” world suggests a lack in our field, not a trend. And I think it’s a lack that should be filled – a larger gauntlet I’ll throw down in two weeks!-Jason Mittell

  • Michael Newman

    two points

    1. On the issue of narrative complexity, I should say first that I eagerly await Jason’s article. In the meantime, I would like to elaborate on the narrow selectivity of Johnson’s examples. There are two kinds of programming that, according to the logic of Johnson’s argument, should also be good for the brain.

    First, Johnson seems to think that while contemporary serial PT dramas are derived from soaps, they are of a higher class of television. Yet he offers no rationale for this distinction between daytime and evening dramas. It seems like nothing more than a subjective taste distinction, with no basis in cognitive strategies employed in each. I would guess that the cognitive demands on soap viewers are greater than those of PT shows: more characters, more interconnection among them, longer story arcs, more relevant backstory, and much, much more narrative to keep track of. Soaps also specialize in engaging us in metacognition: we know that Alexis doesn’t know that Rick knows that Sonny doesn’t know that he is Christina’s father. These multiple levels of mental embedding demand that we keep track of many different characters’ knowledge in relation to the others’ knowledge. If ALIAS makes us smart, Y&R should qualify us for Mensa.

    Second, among the evening programs there is no basis for elevating a few critically-acclaimed shows above the ordinary ones that are unlikely to spring to mind as “complex.” Take JUDGING AMY, which regularly interlaces five or six plots per episode (usually thematically parallel to one another in sophisticated ways), strings out long arcs over multiple seasons, has minor characters turning up from seasons past who we are expected to remember, employs fast-paced dialogue in legal jargon, and presents complicated weekly cases as on LAW AND ORDER. It also regularly delves into difficult moral questions and raises serious social issues a la David E. Kelley and Aaron Sorkin shows. As Allison points out, the masculinist assumptions driving Johnson’s choices of examples preclude his considering something addressed to a female audience and centered on a “feminine” theme (children and families).

    If we are to praise narratives for their complexity it would make sense that we consider all kinds of complex narratives, feminized and masculinized alike. But I don’t think that complex TV makes you smart, which brings me to my second point:

    2. Johnson’s article is part of a larger discourse that seems increasingly prevalent and demands analysis. The notion of culture-as-improvement has been around a long time, but in its latest incarnation the improvements promised come not in the form of virtues, moral or otherwise, but cognitive advantages. The headline on the magazine’s cover wows us with its audacity: “TV Makes You Smart.” I was struck by the incredible similarity of a Times op-ed the following Sunday, Mother’s Day: apparently being a mother also makes you smart. You have to manage many tasks, anticipate keenly, etc. (Being a dad, one supposes, just makes you fat.) This rhetoric of cognitive improvement might originate in parenting advice and children’s products. For example, the “Baby Einstein” videos promise intellectual benefits to children from watching a series of images of toys set to classical music. Many parents believe that the way they rear their children affects many aspects of their lives, and they are right. But there is no evidence that parents can make a dumb kid smart or a smart kid dumb with the right or wrong kind of mediated upbringing. Baby Einstein, obviously, will not produce another Einstein. (For more on this I recommend Steven Pinker’s THE BLANK SLATE and Judith Rich Harris’s THE NURTURE ASSUMPTION).

    One wonders to what extent intelligence, whether emotional, verbal, spatial, numerical, etc., is a trait that can be learned at all. Johnson offers no evidence in his article beyond his own speculations: is there research showing that your leisure-time pursuits affect your intelligence? Is there research showing that consuming a certain kind of narrative makes you smarter? I don’t think there is. His article is a fancy way of defending the pop culture he likes by speculating about its salutary effects on users. My response is that it should need no defending. TV dramas are often engaging, compelling, exciting, gripping, engrossing, emotionally wrenching, devastating, and in the case of this season’s VERONICA MARS, exhilarating. Who cares if they make you smart? Why should we want culture to improve us? When I hear the culture-as-improvement rhetoric I want to run in the other direction because if one respects culture (and the people who produce and consume it) then it should need no justification. What I really liked about Allison’s article was the way it identifies how Johnson justifies a cultural hierarchy through the alibi of his cognitive-improvement argument.

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