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« Michael Tanner. | WILLisms.com | "Today Ukraine, Tomorrow Belarus." »

(Some) TV Makes You Smarter.

There is a certain (well-earned) holier-than-thou attitude many Americans hold toward television. It's dumb. It makes you dumb. It caters to the lowest common denominator. It is gross. It is vile. Television destroys creativity, kills brain cells, makes you less interesting, lowers your IQ, and ruins your imagination. TV is bad, bad, bad.

This all very well may have been the case at one point, yet, in recent years, we've seen a fragmentation of programming. There are smart shows, and there are not-so-smart shows.

Steven Johnson, in The New York Times Magazine, had this interesting piece (via Marginal Revolution blog) on Sunday that argues watching television actually makes you smarter. Today's programs are far more intricate and elaborate, requiring a higher, more sophisticated level of cognition.

Johnson notes that in newer shows, more than older ones,

"you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all.

I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down.

Look at the evolution:




The Times explains:

Put those charts together, and you have a portrait of the Sleeper Curve rising over the past 30 years of popular television. In a sense, this is as much a map of cognitive changes in the popular mind as it is a map of on-screen developments, as if the media titans decided to condition our brains to follow ever-larger numbers of simultaneous threads. Before ''Hill Street,'' the conventional wisdom among television execs was that audiences wouldn't be comfortable following more than three plots in a single episode, and indeed, the ''Hill Street'' pilot, which was shown in January 1981, brought complaints from viewers that the show was too complicated. Fast-forward two decades, and shows like ''The Sopranos'' engage their audiences with narratives that make ''Hill Street'' look like ''Three's Company.'' Audiences happily embrace that complexity because they've been trained by two decades of multi-threaded dramas.

Ted Frank believes the piece misses the point in leaving out the rise of cable television:

Forty years ago, a show with 15 million viewers would be a dreadful failure, whereas in today's fragmented market it's a hit, and there aren't many more than fifteen million viewers who will sit through the intelligent shows Johnson trumpets. There's no longer a critical need to pander to the absolute lowest common denominator, though, as Arrested Development's ratings prove, there's still some need: a brilliantly intelligent sitcom with a dozen plot arcs and no laugh track can only pull six million viewers.

The fragmentation of media is a manifestation of, and a contributing factor to, an interesting societal phenomenon: American society increasingly demands more choices, more competition, more specialization, and more boutique products and services. One-size-fits-all doesn't fly with Americans anymore.

Posted by Will Franklin · 26 April 2005 08:11 PM


Sesame Street is actually suppose to raise your childrens IQ ...Also I have heard people who come to America and want to learn English watch Sesame Street to perfect their language skills. I had one child who watched Sesame Street every chance he got and he is a little genius! He also use to watch The Wizard Of OZ, The Sound Of Music, Oklahoma, and Dumbo... I wonder what he thinks about those viewing pleasures? Oh, Hee man and the smurfs were also favorites!...

Posted by: linda at April 26, 2005 08:37 PM

My son watched every show of Macgyver! He is real bright! He also can answer every question on Jeopardy! He has never lost a game of monopoly as far as I know!

Posted by: Zsa Zsa at April 26, 2005 08:42 PM

My special little guy watch Forest Gump so many times I list count!

Posted by: Marge at April 26, 2005 08:44 PM

Oh! I almost forgot... When we had the Gulf War crisis when George H.W. Bush was our President he was fascinated and watch the entire war on TV... He was only like 9 or 10 years old ...He was a funny kid!

Posted by: linda at April 26, 2005 08:51 PM

"Starsky and Hutch any episode" comical.

Posted by: Carly Franklin at April 26, 2005 09:14 PM