Last week I found myself watching a rental videotape of Amazing Stories — Steven Spielberg’s mid-’80s “cinematic” television show. I remember it being “highly acclaimed” during its short life, but perhaps my memories are malformed from a limited seven year-old comprehension; because like with any show from the ’80s, watching it today is ultimately disappointing. No matter how innovative they were at the time, the scripts now read as long tracks of cliché plot points and over-traveled emotional modes.
In his book Everything Bad is Good for You, writer Steven Johnson has an explanation for why ’80s shows have aged so poorly: Pop culture’s moral and content standards may have deteriorated but the structural complexity and cognitive requirements have greatly increased. So, viewers today are trained to expect less narrative hand-holding and more sophisticated, multi-tiered storytelling. We therefore get easily bored with the slow pace and obviousness of past television. Johnson’s book may be the most optimistic thing I’ve read in years, and empirical evidence certainly matches with his ideas. After watching the entire first season of Arrested Development, episodes from the “high-paced” sixth season of The Simpsons feel rather slow.
Why has television become more complex? Johnson fingers the rise of repeat viewing: Thanks to the VCR, DVD player, and syndication, we end up watching specific episodes more than once. This media environment creates a need for programming that can hold up to multiple viewings — a condition most easily satisfied through greater narrative complexity and the intentional withholding of vital information. To use one of Johnson’s example, characters from The West Wing refer cryptically to events in early episodes that fully break into the storyline months later. Few could argue that all American television is super-intelligent, and the book’s main examples mostly started as “boutique” shows targeted at highly-educated audiences. But difficulty does not automatically mean “elitist entertainment” as ER and Seinfeld‘s mainstream successes have shown.
Things are not so rosy, however, when thinking about Japanese television in Johnson’s framework. Japanese TV is mainly variety shows, featuring panels of celebrities commenting on topics or pre-recorded segments. Drama series are short-term productions, and all television shows are filmed with video. (Think the visual quality of Latin American soap operas.) Despite the fact that the Japanese audience endures more commercials every year than TV viewers in other nations, production value is very low. (Important to remember here that American shows don’t really make money until sold into syndication or international markets). The high dependence upon “idols” for the dramas’ starring roles creates a palpable lack of acting talent. Reality shows tend to eschew the social psychology and game theory of Survivor or The Apprentice and concentrate on watching people (and kangaroos) eat things. Most science fiction anime certainly include complex plots, but I do not think I would be off-base to say that the networks’ strategy is to create what Johnson calls “Least Objectionable Programming.” TV is still family-oriented, blunt targeted towards a mass market.
Has Japanese TV gotten more complex over the last two decades? I would imagine that general show pacing has increased and there have been some individual programs with engaging structural innovations, but almost nothing on Japanese television requires the cognitive work of a show like 24, which isn’t even that smart. Why has “difficult” television not hit Japan? First of all, traditional employment patterns restrict the nation’s most highly educated citizens from being home during “Golden Time,” and therefore, Japanese TV does not make shows that cater to the most sophisticated market’s more complicated entertainment needs. Television is a media mostly targeted to children, the retired, homemakers, and female clerical workers, and networks err on the side of under-stimulation for these audiences. Also, the lack of cable in Japan limits the amount of syndication, and subsequently, the culture of repeat viewing. Like in America years ago, shows need to make total sense upon the initial airing.
So, are the Japanese losing out on the intelligence-boosting pop culture described by Johnson? I would doubt it. The Japanese are absorbed by the two other media mentioned by Johnson — games and the Internet — which both require much more cognitive ability than earlier entertainment forms. Television is not the whole world, but it will be interesting to see if cultural complexity increases are a global or just a local phenomenon.