Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stickiness on TV


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Why would I read a book by Malcolm Gladwell?, I used to always think. The covers of his books are littered with acclaim, but then you read the back with a perplexed look: Some things are big. Others are small. Some things are in between. Gladwell discusses this phenomena in stunning detail. So maybe thats a bit of a hyperbole, but his topics seemed so vague...so obvious.

At last, I caved and read Tipping Point. For the most part it was more no duh than I could have imagined. It wasn't just marketing 101 like I had assumed; it was literally common sense. Do the people who read this not wake up in the morning and think about "things" before they go to bed at night?

If you clean up graffiti crime rates fall because spray painted walls give an impression to people of a lawless society. People aren't cool because they smoke, people who are rebellious and seen as cool are more likely to smoke. Some people have more friends and social skills than others and are important in word of mouth epidemics. Gladwell you are a genius. I honestly think these are concepts I grasped about society before I turned 12. All it took was watching one John Carpenter film, observing kids smoke at the bus stop in middle school, and talking to more that 14 people in my life.

However....there are two chapters in Tipping Point that pay for the price of admission alone. Ideas I was not only exposed to but directed toward yet I had never really thought of them in any detail. One of these conversations is about television programming for children and the search for the 'stickiest' show.

In the beginning there was Sesame Street. The most important thing to keep in mind for this entire discussion is that there is a false notion about television. To this day people criticize the technology because they feel that people, especially children, become addicted to it and will stare like mindless zombies for hours on end. We are all familiar with the phrase "zone out." But not surprisingly, it turns out that people (especially children) have wandering attention spans. Keeping them focused is not remotely as simple as turning on the TV. Their minds will drift almost immediately. And in order to teach children with a program you have to maintain their attention.

Through thousands of trials and studies that no one had ever thought to do before, the creators of Sesame Street made a number of novel discoveries. Kids only paid attention when the familiar muppets where on screen and their minds would drift if a segment went longer than 3 minutes. The result was a magazine show, or a series of short sketches that repeatedly used the same characters. Children were hooked. For 25 it was the pinnacle of child television.

Then a few people upped the ante and made Blues Clues. Personally I had no idea Blues Clues had any sort of relevance in society, but it has become the most addictive and heralded show of its kind. Every episode follows the same trajectory. Blue disappears and leaves three clues behind for the one human character, Steve, to find him by. This is one of the important distinctions between Blues Clues and Sesame Street. What they realized was that though segments had to be short to keep attention spans in check - children also needed motivation. Though they were too young to appreciate story arcs or character development children felt a sense of accomplishment from making the connections. From point A to B. From B to C. And from C to finding out where Blue is.

This common thread through each episode was the only level of sophistication Blues Clues added to the working formula. Everything else was simplified even further. Sesame Street, years before, had made an episode where Big Bird receives a package. Its at this moment that Big Bird realizes that he is the only character on the Street whose name is what he is. What results is a search for identity. The episode had emotional depth, a physiological weight to it, and was also funny. When they tested the episode on children it bombed. A search for self was not something children could relate to. Yet at least. It was too sophisticated a concept.

In Blues Clues everyone is named what they are. Salt and Pepper. Mr. Couch. Mailman. Etc. More importantly they always act the same. When Steve sets out to find Blue the same characters are always a bit sassy and difficult and the same ones are nice and helpful. The characters are really only there so that Steve can present information to the children without always addressing the camera directly. "I see, Flower. So what you are saying is [insert information]?"

The result is a TV show that has sat on impressive ratings for almost two decades. I finished that chapter and my view of the world actually did change a bit. It got the wheels in my mind churning and I thought of something Gladwell never touched on, perhaps because when the book was published it was a bit too early to see. Blues Clues had found the formula for making the most sticky and addictive program ever. And now every show on TV was literally Blues Clues for adults.

This is because every popular long lasting show on network (other than Lost) is a episodic hospital or crime procedural program. House and CSI are Blues Clues for adults. This, of course, is a euphemism for  "television for morons." Blues Clues found out how to keep the attention span of children. Jerry Brocheimer and the creators of CSI made a very important realization: the 35 year old American knows less and might actually be dumber than a 12 year old in school. The only thing adults know more about is Sex. And they have also been desensitized to violence. So they took Blues Clues and added sex and violence.

Every episode of doctor shows and cop shows follows the same route. There is no real story or allegorical implication. There is simply a sick person or a dead person and we have to follow the characters  from A to B to C to either a conviction or a diagnosis. B and C are either "breaks", "false accusations", or "false diagnoses." No scene is more than 3 minutes and when "learning" is happening we are presented with a snappy CGI presentation to fill in the information in a visual manner. If information is presented only orally minds will stray. Someone has to fire a weapon or almost die every six minutes or audience attention is lost. Screaming can also be used to signal to the viewer "hey, its time to pay attention again."

The characters have names but they are irrelevant. You can start midway through the third season and discover which is the good cop and bad cop in 14 seconds. Even if you are blind you know who the black cop is because he says things like "Dats messed up" and "Don't make us come back, ya hear?"

The characters never change. House is not so much a person as much as an encyclopedia of medical show cliches and a phone book of 'that's what she said' snarks. His team follows the trend. There's the one that stands up to his shit. The one that always doubts him and the one that is just a bit more ethical. In the end it doesn't matter because again they are only there so House doesn't have to address the camera directly. "So what you are saying is [insert information here]?" he'll ask. To which the Australian guy will say, "Yes. Those are the side effects of a bad blood transfusion. Thank you for explaining that to me like I had never opened a medical book in my entire life. But you are right. Areas can inflame and become bigger than average." Wait for it....You know its coming...."That's what she said."

The fact that programming directed at toddlers and programming for adults deals with the same battle against attention deficit has more negative repercussions than just awareness of the sad fact that this is where society stands today. I mean books? Forget about it. The most popular books amongst adults are children's books. Not books like children's books. Children's books period. One side effect is that any television show that parts from the formula for say artistic reasons is either canned or never green lit in the first place. Not enough people want to juggle a dozen characters in interesting and interlocking plot lines. This leaves the rest of us, the hungry ones, with one good show to watch a season and our own daydreams to fill the void.

The second problem I see is that Sesame Street and Blues Clues have been proven to work. As in they educate our kids. The shows are not just sticky; the information sticks. I'm aware of the matra "to each his own." And entertainment is entertainment after all, but crime procedurals and doctor shows actually make people dumber. Or in the least bit gives them a false sense of intellect which is very dangerous. Numerous articles have appeared about criminal cases falling apart because the jury wouldn't convict an evident killer. The reason is that television has garnered the false notion to them that all killers spend 20% of their time killing people and 80% of their time ejaculating on their victims personal belongings. Similarly, people are second guessing doctors around the country because they are positive their symptoms point to radioactive poisoning and not the flu. "It was raining yesterday. Could I have been struck by lightning?" Sigh...Physician suicide rates are at an all time high. 

A final cause for concern is that stupidity is a slippery slope. CSI ratings started to slip. Instead of hiring crime experts to give the show a revamp we instead were introduced to CSI: Miami. The solution was to lower the bar. In an episode of NCIS a hacker has attacked one of the computers. We know this because random windows are appearing on one of the character's screens so she starts typing furiously. What happens next is a snapshot of everything wrong with the modern world...another person starts typing on the same keyboard AT THE SAME TIME. Four hands, two brains, and one spacebar is what this problem needs. Sigh...computer expert suicide rates are at an all time high.

But ultimately Tipping Point is not about stickiness. Sticky messages are easier to propagate but what spreads the message like wild fire. How does the epidemic start? What is the tipping point? One day CSI was brought onto the world. How did it become the most watched show on television? I figure the conversation at some watercooler at a random corporation went something like this...

Steve: Did you see the new show CSI last night?
Sue: No. What's that about?
Steve: It's like derp a doop a tee da luu.
Sue: Omg. Who's in it?
Steve: Dim terp a doop a beep a boo and dink a dirka dada dew.
Sue: Whappa winka tinka a too. I have to see it!
(Jim approaches. He's what Gladwell calls a connector. Someone that spreads ideas because they have lots of friends and free time)
Jim: What are you guys talking about?
Steve: Ferpa. Ferpa derpa fadika purpah.
Jim: Sounds interesting. Go on...

When the three of them finished their conversation they went back to their desks neglecting the puddle of drool they had left on the tile. It just so happened that on this given day the janitor was out sick so the pool sat their stagnate for hours. One cell organisms started to grow in the clear syrup. They merged with other cells. By midnight they had formed worms and primitive insects. At 2 AM a small fish grew legs and left the pool. At Jim's desk it found a half eaten bar of candy. By the time it finished eating the treat it had fur and was walking on two legs. By 6 AM the creature roughly resembled an early human. At 8:07 AM he logged on to Jim's computer guessing his password in 7 tries. He opened notepad and started typing. At 8:19 AM he printed out the pilot episode of The Big Bang Theory.

I'm not a journalist like Gladwell. I have no sources to back that up. But let's just speculate for a moment; how else could it have happened?