Class: Academic Writing Major: English ’15
In 2009, superstar Alec Baldwin appeared in a commercial for the online television streaming website, Hulu. In the advertisement, Baldwin takes observers through a fictionalized testing facility for the website in which ordinary people are intensely viewing shows on the internet. The participants seem as if they are in a heavily sedated, hypnotic state as they stare blankly at the screen in front of them. Baldwin then informs the audience that TV “softens the brain” through “cerebral gelatinizing shows,” and as this explanation is given, an x-ray showing a participant’s brain melting into a “cottage cheese like mush” is displayed.1 Despite the obviously satiric nature of this advertisement, the view that television rots the brain is widely held and generally accepted as fact. However, this assumption is based off of limited exposure to and knowledge of television and discounts the plethora of educational and complicated shows on air. TV can potentially be as beneficial to the mind as reading a book.
There are plenty of negative social stigma attached to gratuitous television watching, the most popular being that watching too much TV rots your brain. Several scientific studies back up this claim. One in particular was conducted by the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College in London. In the study, participants were given a general health questionnaire that examined the relationship between screen-based leisure activities and mental health. The results concluded that participants who engaged in at least four hours of television per day had the highest risk for mental health disorders dealing with depression and memory, and physical health disorders including obesity.2 Other studies have shown that watching television suppresses the “dynamic flow of communication between all of the regions of the brain, which facilitates the comprehension of higher levels of order,”3 and can potentially lead to the development of ADD.4 In essence, this research shows that watching too much TV turns your brain off and prevents it from functioning properly in the future.
While these evidences may paint a dismal picture of television, there are two important points to consider when reflecting on these results. First, those people who displayed high risk for mental and physical disorders at University College reported watching four hours or more of television per day. This number is higher than the average viewing time of roughly three hours per day5, and considering many of the participants reported watching more than four hours per day, it is safe to assume that this group of people is on the more extreme side of television viewing. The results cannot be fairly applied to the rest of the television-viewing population.
Secondly, the researchers do not specify what type of television shows the participants are watching. It is safe to assume that, most likely, participants were viewing popular shows falling in the genres of sitcoms and reality TV, given that these are two of the most heavily viewed types of shows on television. It is also safe to assume that these types of shows do not contribute to cognitive activity or facilitate critical thought due to their flat characters, simple plots, and often times nonsense content. But what of those television shows with worthwhile content, complicated storylines, and a vast and diverse cast of characters? Can they provide the cognitive stimulation that scientists so fervently deny is possible from a sedentary, screen-based leisure activity? I say yes.
In first world countries, television is an accepted fixture in many, if not most, homes. Given that the TV is on for an average of three hours a day in such households, this means that for those families with children, exposure to the silver screen starts at a young age. Many television nay-sayers believe that subjecting children to television at an early age can be detrimental to their physical and mental health. Some parental advice websites even claim that watching television as a child can increase school drop-out rates and even affect educational achievement at age 26.6 While it is ridiculous to argue that plopping your kids in front of a TV for hours on end is a good thing, it is equally ridiculous to make the universal assumption that all TV is bad for them. According to a study performed by researchers at the University of Texas, young children who watched a few hours per week of educational television performed better on achievement tests regarding reading, math, and vocabulary skills than children who did not watch television. Testing three years later confirmed that those TV-viewing children still scored higher on academic tests.7
This same study also confirmed that children who spent large amounts of time watching entertainment television scored lower on the academic tests than those who watched fewer hours. These findings indicate that it is not theinstitution of television that is apparently destroying the brain, but more so the content to which the viewer is subjected. Obviously, educational programs expose children to content and knowledge they had no previous access to, and so they will absorb the new information. Similarly for adults, television channels such as the Discovery, History, and Travel Channels offer insight into topics a viewer may not be familiar with. Provided that the viewer is actively engaged in the program, there is no conceivable way that watching informational TV shows is detrimental to brain function or development.
Educational television, however, is not immensely popular with the general public. Most people watch television in order to be entertained, therefore fictional comedies and dramas are some of the most widely consumed shows on air. But just because a show doesn’t chronicle the fall of Ancient Rome or explain how a B-52 fighter plane’s engine is constructed doesn’t mean it will rot your brain. When considering fictional shows, content does matter, but what is more important is the way in which the content is presented, and the way in which the viewer engages the content. In the early days of television, programs were short with a singular storyline, occasionally containing another very short, humorous side plot. These types of shows are extremely simplistic, involve relatively few characters, and require little to no thought on the part of the viewer to follow and comprehend. Most early television shows conformed to this simplistic structure, and some still do, but over the past few decades, television shows have greatly increased in complexity and plot structure. In his essay, “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” New York Times columnist Steven Johnson argues that the recent emergence of complicated, intertwined storylines in prime-time television shows (and the like) also gave rise to a new way of watching television.8
Johnson claims these revolutionary shows can actually increase our intelligence. The concept of intertwining storylines, “multiple threading” as he calls it, is one of the most crucial elements of beneficial television shows. A show with multiple threads is one with a vast array of principle characters dealing with several other stories on the side besides the main flow of the plot.9 In order to keep track of each character and their individual difficulties as well as keep the overarching plotline in mind, the viewer must actively participate in the on-screen action and pay keen attention to how each character interacts with the others, else subtleties and indirect cues be lost.
A perfect example of this type of cognitively demanding show has recently taken the HBO Channel by storm. “Game of Thrones,” a medieval-type fantasy show, involves no fewer than 23 characters. While many of their stories are very closely connected to one another, each character has their own individual struggles and specific relationships with other characters spanning the geography of an entire world. For example: Ned Stark is Lord of Winterfell and is married to Catelyn Tully, but while he was on a military mission, had a bastard son called Jon Snow who is hated by Catelyn and has no chance of inheriting the throne from his father, so he is recruited by his Uncle Benji to become part of the Knight’s Watch in the far North where he receives notice too late that his half-brother Rob has gone to war with King Joffrey who resides in King’s Landing in the South and is actually a child of incest of twins Jamie and Cersei Lannister who attempted to kill Bran, another son of the Stark’s, when he discovered their filthy secret, but framed their other Lannister brother, a dwarf named Tyrion who was kidnapped by Catelyn for the attempted murder of her son, MEANWHILE, across the Narrow Sea, the Dothraki ruler, Kahl Drogo, was recently married to Daenerys, one of the two remaining members of House Targaryen, by her vengeful brother, Viserys, who is the rightful heir to the throne after the Mad King was killed by Jamie Lannister and the reign of the Baratheons began, and who plans, through the marriage of his sister, to raise a rebel army to the Baratheons. I think I’ve made my point.
This synopsis, while seemingly very detailed and all-encompassing, hardly scratches the surface of the plot of this extremely complicated show. Outside of this description, there are still ten more characters to be considered, each with their own personal multiple threads, and at least three more geographical settings to keep track of. In order to follow every thread, there can be no passivity while watching this show. The viewer must always be actively engaged, listening, and questioning the information presented to them in order to fully comprehend what is going on. The focus of the narrative often jumps around sporadically from one character to another, and the viewer must also be able to store information and remember significant events that occurred perhaps episodes ago. The mental activity required for this degree of retention must be noted and respected as beneficial for brain function. Viewers may not be absorbing facts and statistics, but their brains are assuredly working hard to process the immeasurable whos, whats, wheres, and whys of such a cognitively demanding show.
Besides the complicated interpersonal relationships between the characters, the complex political system and ambiguous transfer of power in this medieval society must also be understood. Royal bloodlines are easy enough to follow; there’s a king, he’s married to the queen, they have some babies, and the oldest son becomes king after his father dies. The system becomes a bit more complicated when the kingship was turned over to an undeserving heir upon the murder of the rightful king, a new family comes to power, marries into another family, has the aforementioned children, but with a surprise incest child in the mix. The bloodlines are extravagantly confusing, and opinions on who truly deserves the throne vary considerably. The mystery is so well concealed, because each character deeply holds convictions regarding who deserves the throne. The audience has no idea who in fact does deserve it. Mix in a rebellious northern state intent on sovereignty which adds an entirely new throne and you’ve got yourself quite a situation to follow.
This political ambiguity forces the viewer to create a mental map of past rulers and family lines, which is not an easy task considering the dialogue ostensibly reveals next to nothing regarding the past, before the chronology of the show began. References to the past are only made in passing conversation which forces the viewer to constantly and consistently attend to the rapid dialogue and draw broad conclusions from small bits of information. Shows that embody this type of plot development do not use what Johnson refers to as “flashing arrows,” or obvious indications as to where the plot is going.10 A popular feature in older and substandard television shows, flashing arrows facilitate passivity in viewing because they do not allow the reader to connect the proverbial dots for themselves. Emerging shows have abandoned this hand-holding tactic to empower the viewer to think for themselves, make predictions, and second guess the objective truthfulness of dialogue.
Active listening, character mapping, content retention, making predictions; these are all valuable skills and strategies that must be utilized in order to comprehend complex shows such as Game of Thrones. These same strategies are also used extensively during the act of reading. Television shows and books share many of the same qualities. Both tell stories, whether it be a story about a man or an entire nation; both involve diverse casts of characters; both vary considerably on subject matter, from the Pyramids of Giza to vampires; both use a variety of figurative devices to enhance the storytelling, such as metaphors and foreshadowing. Yet, despite these critical similarities, television is constantly stepped on by intellectuals and concerned people everywhere who are convinced that television spells the cognizant downfall of mankind.
Among the various reasons defending reading as the superior form of story consumption are these: reading indulges the imagination, makes you well-travelled, is therapeutic, and improves your memory and creativity.12 While all of these things are assuredly true of books, they can be just as fairly applied to quality television shows. TV absolutely and without a doubt indulges the imagination. Television can guide a viewer through impossible places, such as the immense world of Game of Thrones, or take him through space and time as never experienced before; take for example any show on the SciFi Network. The Discovery and Travel, and History Channels provide a personalized tour of foreign lands and cultures, ensuring that the viewer is well-travelled. Television is a kind of therapy for many individuals who have difficulty escaping the stresses of everyday life. Keeping track of and comprehending complex shows from episode to episode and season to season requires immense use of memory, and frequent memory exercise, such as viewers receive when keeping up with complicated television shows, improves memory function. As for increasing creativity, exposure to fantastic worlds and far off places can only infect the mind with even more fantastic ideas and intensify curiosity.
The reason people can’t seem to grasp the truth about television and its many benefits is that popular television is frivolous tripe. Reality shows offer no complexity, and sitcoms are only as good as the writers’ sarcasm. These popularized shows require little to no thought to comprehend. But there is an immense and valuable variety of worthwhile television shows that exist just below the surface of popular TV, and these shows demand just as much cognitive activity from their audience as books do from their readers. Doctor Aletha C. Huston agrees with me; “The public discussions dismissing television without distinguishing the content seem to be missing the boat”.12 Content is everything.
The only difference between books and television is the way in which they are consumed. Books provide visual-verbal stimulus, and television primarily relies on audito-verbal stimulus. Bad television only calls for passive listening, but good, meaningful television requires hearing and active mental processing. This is the most crucial and constantly overlooked concept in solidifying television as a truly beneficial force in today’s pop culture. Once it has been realized by the masses, perhaps we may be able to resurrect television from its cultural damnation and reestablish it as the positive force it is.
1 “Alec Baldwin Superbowl Commercial,” Youtube, February 1, 2009.
2 Mark Hamer, Emmanuel Stamatkis, and Gita D. Mishra, “Television and Screen-based Activity and Mental Well-Being in Adults,” American Journal of Preventative Medicine, April 2010.
3 Wes Moore, “Television: Opiate of the Masses,” The Journal of Cognitive Liberties,2003.
4 Daniel Amen and Randy Alvarez, “ADD with Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D. And Randy Alvares,” Youtube, January 28, 2009.
5 “Television Viewing by Country,” NationMaster, Ed. Luke Metcalfe, 2012.
6 Kayla Boyse and Brad Bushman, “Television and Children,” Television (TV) and Children: Your Child, University of Michigan Health System, August 2010.
7 “Educational TV May Boost Intellectual Development,” Center for Media Literacy, 2011.
8 Steven Johnson, “Watching TV Makes Your Smarter,” Reading Popular Culture (New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2011), 188-200.
9 Johnson, “Watching TV,” 188-200.
10 Johnson, “Watching TV,” 188-200.
11 Amie Harms, “10 Reasons Why Reading is Good for You,” My Book Club, October 16, 2011.
12 “Educational TV May Boost Intellectual Development,” Center for Media Literacy, 2011.