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Entertainment Evolves to Offer Challenge, Not Escape

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Mass media entertainment has frequently come under attack as mindless or dangerous to culture. What used to be generated on a local level was dwarfed by an advertisement-entertainment-broadcast complex which grew so powerfully insipid that it inspired FCC Chairman Newton Minow to declare the television broadcast landscape a “vast wasteland” in 1961.  Many people, whether they admit it or not, watch films and television largely for the escape value and not for a more enriching entertainment experience on the level of learning to play a song or interacting with others in a game or sport. If you notice, though, TV shows today are on new levels of quality when compared with the uninspiring, non-challenging programs of yesteryear.  Leave it to Beaver never had to compete with The Wire, nor did I Love Lucy‘s completely acceptable “quirkiness” have to face the sublime dysfunctional satire of The Simpsons and South Park.  Likewise, truly great music could only be found in live music clubs.  Hit factories were focused on churning out single after copycat single before deeper, album-oriented and experimental music production became viable. Those developments are the direct result of an increase in competition in broadcast television and musical production.  The nature of the complex, of course, means that it isn’t just a question of increases in technology, although that played a role in the form of multi-track recording for music.  Regulatory reform by necessity opened the door for technological and social changes to sweep entertainment media.  Minow’s FCC focused on opening up broadcast television to create more opportunities for public interest programming, and as adoption grew, so did the number of channels and offerings.  Competition meant content had to become better and more relevant.  Today, the best television content is generally, though not always, created on channels like Showtime and HBO where the consumer pays directly for the content, instead of watching content funded by proxy (i.e. advertising). The Internet is clearly making a difference in both music and television content, along with whole other forms of entertainment like massively multiplayer online games and even Chatroulette.  Consumers no longer have to wait for content to come to them, streaming from an idiot box.  They can find it in any way they want to, legal or not, and with browser plugins like AdBlock Plus, they can entertain themselves without the scream of advertising that has dominated the 20th Century. This liberation from undesired advertising – not all advertising, to be clear – when joined with a hopeful victory for net neutrality and the ability of individuals to cheaply produce and broadcast their own content – is the latest breakthrough in ensuring a higher quality offering from entertainment media.  This does not mean that entertainment media will necessarily get better on average, but I firmly believe that the amount and diversity of high-quality entertainment accessible to the average consumer will increase many times over in the coming decades. But what does “high quality entertainment” mean?  After all, so many people do like to escape from the drudgery of their everyday lives by experiencing more drudgery on the tube.  What do they care about the quality when what they seek is the media equivalent of crack cocaine: cheap, quick and powerful? I think that the improving quality of entertainment media and changes in general social trends, fueled by the explosion of social media, point to a desire for more challenge, insight and relevance from our entertainment media options.  Shows are released on DVD and streamed online so we can consume them like we would books.  They are no longer just things to pass the time; we see many shows like The Wire and Mad Men as highly relevant to our modern economic and social struggles.  Breaking Bad is not hip, self-referential drug culture escapism, it is an engaging character-driven look at the role of addiction and the war on drugs in a world where health care premiums are immorally high, among many other things.  I for one am a huge fan of Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of the Battlestar Galactica franchise.  Next to The Wire it is about as broadly and poignantly relevant a television show as has aired in the last decade when it comes to exploring our social and cultural issues.  However, without being a bit of a science fiction geek and being willing to commit to the series from the very beginning, it is hard to access.  Viewership hovered perilously around the one million mark, and its prequel follow-up Caprica suffers the same problem.  Yet with the new options the Internet offers for content distribution, such shows ought to become more commonplace whether or not people watch them at the time of original broadcast.  It will simply be funded and delivered in a different way from advertising-funded broadcast media.  You will pay a set fee or what you like for the show directly, or it will solicit funding drives, or it will be funded by interest groups who make profit from other ventures; it will be there because you want it to be there. Another reason to have confidence in the increasing relevance and quality of entertainment content comes from a statement in this Economist special report on television:
Technology also competes for attention. Although families still gather around the TV set as they have done for decades, they now bring electronic distractions with them. Nielsen reckons that 13% of people who watched the Academy Awards ceremony this year went online during the programme, up from 9% last year. The multitaskers did not appear to gravitate to entertainment websites. Google and Facebook topped the list of websites visited during the Oscars, just as they did during the Super Bowl and the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.
Emphasis is mine.  Although the article frames this information in terms of television’s hold over its audience, I take this to mean that we only seek to entertain ourselves with one thing at a time.  Somehow we consider entertainment to be different than information – I would be shocked if a similar study found high volumes of people engrossed by information or interest reports on television, the radio, or the Internet to the point of not clicking or switching around to different information sites.  It seems that our brains do not treat entertainment the same way: we want to focus, not get lost.  We want to share our thoughts and interests about that entertainment with others (I am guilty of this with both information and entertainment, as a peek at my lifestream will exhibit). Going forward in the entropic timeline, I expect people will focus on deeper consumption of challenging and enriching entertainment instead of flocking to shows like The Bachelor or Jersey Shore.  Young people are looking for some way to contribute a voice to the massive cultural stream, and consuming empty entertainment calories is just a waste of time.  As for the bodies of fandom for shows like Jersey Shore, I doubt that their chatter will matter as much in the future as it does today.  The increasing role of relevance in the content ecosystem means the worst people have to fear is overhearing trash gossip at a restaurant or in the hallway, not in the news they consume.  The same is true for the unwashed masses who hate on Battlestar Galactica – our indulgent geek talk will not pepper the news on TMZ. Increasing competition in entertainment media will strengthen our culture as we leave the wasteland for an environment of untold diversity.

Written by Preston

May 19th, 2010 at 6:02 am

2 Responses to 'Entertainment Evolves to Offer Challenge, Not Escape'

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  1. Couple of interesting things in here:

    You touch on HBO and Showtime as having superior content because they are directly paid for by the consumer, but I think that is only half the story.

    There are some truly remarkable television shows on network television, Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock, both on NBC, come to mind. One reason for this could be that great TV on cable has forced networks to up their game in order to keep pace. Certainly speaks to your point about competition and its impact on the industry.

    One point as well in regards to The Bachelor and Jersey Shore (and the probably hundreds of other shows you could throw in there). The more I think about it the more I think that these shows are actually pulling a fast one everyone. It seems like most of the people, or at least a great percentage, who watch these shows are bloggers or other commentators who pick them apart, mock them or otherwise watch them for “ironic” value.

    Put another way, does anyone actually watch reality TV seriously, or just “ironically” to make themselves feel better about their own crappy lives?

    I suspect its the latter and if so, its pure genius, although also still pure crap.


    5 Jun 10 at 22:07

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