Does TV make you smart? Steven Berlin Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, makes the argument for a surprising and resounding "yes."
As the keynote speaker for the Banff World Television Festival, Johnson set the stage for a gathering of industry insiders who kept coming back to the theme of leveraging the new platforms younger viewers are gravitating toward – from the Internet to mobile video devices like iPods and cell phones.
At the festival, he was perhaps preaching to the converted, but his controversial bestselling book has inspired agreement in unlikely places. Johnson recounted an anecdote of appearing on British radio to defend his thesis. He was surprised when his supposed challenger responded by saying: "I have to say I was shocked that he managed to write an entire book about the intelligence of popular culture without once mentioning Buffy the Vampire Slayer," then launching into a discourse about the structural and philosophical complexity of that show.
Johnson calls his thesis the Sleeper Curve, after the Woody Allen movie Sleeper, where an organic food store owner from the '70s wakes up 200 years later to a world where hot fudge sundaes and cheeseburgers are health foods. Unfortunately, Johnson's argument doesn't extend to justifying a chocolate addiction, but he points out that video games and television have grown far more complex over the past couple of decades, leading to an audience increasingly trained in cognitive complexity – an audience that has to think harder and more creatively to follow Lost or 24, or the games Civilization IV or SimCity.
One measure of complexity he uses is the reduced amount of narrative handholding in current television."The audience now has a willingness to be confused, to be challenged," he said, pointing to the medical jargon of a show like ER, which doesn't expect its audience to follow the intricate medical procedures but does expect us to pick up on important clues to character and story buried in them, or The West Wing, which would routinely show characters responding to events and information that has been withheld from the audience, until a later reveal in the episode.
Johnson also contrasts the single narratives of Starsky and Hutch with the later Hill Street Blues, which he credits as being one of the first shows to have many simultaneous storylines combined with more complex subject matter than the soap operas that have long used the technique.
Another technique he uses to demonstrate the increased complexity is social network mapping. Johnson mapped the relationships between characters in one episode of Dallas, showing the relatively simple and straightforward connections between them. He contrasted that with the Byzantine relationships, both overt and suspected, between characters in an episode of 24.
He compared the complexity of relationships in modern serialized television to those in works by Jane Austen and George Eliot. "Television writers have an amazing tableau of a 90-hour story they can tell, which end up with the ambition and complexity of an 18th century novel," he said, before clarifying with a laugh: "I'm not saying 24 and Middlemarch are equivalent artistic achievements."
That is, in fact, the prime weakness of Johnson's argument, but one he freely admits – he is almost completely divorcing content from his thesis. Any complaints about violence, morality, or even sheer stupidity have no place in his tight focus, which is that the amount of brainpower needed to unravel popular culture is helping IQ scores and what he calls "system thinking skills" to rise. What we do with our increased brainpower is not his concern.
From his book:
The real world doesn't come in nicely packaged public service announcements, and we're better off with entertainment that reflects that fallen state with all its ethical ambiguity. I happen to be sympathetic to that argument, but it's not the one I want to make here. I think there is another way to assess the social virtue of pop culture, one that looks at media as a kind of cognitive workout, not a series of life lessons.
"Never underestimate the power of people with too much time on their hands and a broadband connection," he joked at the festival, pointing to what some fans do with that increased brainpower: creating their own layers of complexity on top of what they're fed by a game, television show, or movie.
"In some ways the Buffy fans were a glimpse of the future, because they were doing these things before anyone else was," Johnson said during his presentation, where he showed pages of analysis of the Joss Whedon series from buffyology.com and Wikipedia, as well as Buffy Meetup groups across the United States, demonstrating how television shows are being used as ways of making real-life social connections.
Show creators and show fans are creating a feedback loop between television and the Internet, taking an already sophisticated show and adding layers of meaning for fans who want to dig even deeper. Lost, for example, plants clues in the show that are not apparent to a casual viewer – the mysterious numbers appearing on a medicine bottle, for example.
Hardcore fans pick up on clues and spread the word, becoming evangelists for the show and creating resources and guideposts for others. Johnson even believes fans could become seed investors for a show such as Firefly, whose devoted fan-base discussed raising money to continue the series after its cancellation by FOX.
Lost was launched just as he was finishing his book, but in Banff he spoke at length about the show as a perfect example of the way television can engage the audience's minds in ways that earlier series would never have attempted. "It's a remarkably complex narrative system and it's a huge international hit," he said, saying the show is creating "essentially a game in what was once a passive form of entertainment." It is, in fact, not just creating a game out of the intricate viewing, multitude of official and fan-based websites, and "mobisodes" for mobile devices, but is spawning an actual game, as well.
Perhaps more importantly for the industry attendees at the Banff World Television Festival, Johnson's theories touch on the economics of a television landscape where viewers are turning to the Internet, games, and mobile video devices. Producers aren't just using complexity to build a television audience, but to retain value for DVD and syndication sales, and to create opportunities to place revenue-generating content on these other platforms.
The covert clues, multi-layered jokes, and intricate stories of shows as diverse as The Simpsons and 24 are partly a product of the "incentive to make shows that can endure repeat viewings," according to Johnson. Interactivity, then, is smart for both creators and consumers – it not only adds cognitive complexity to pop culture, but makes good business sense.