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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Has TV simply gone crazy?

I’ve said more than once that even if Sturgeon’s Law holds true for TV — if 95 percent of what’s on the tube is crap (and that may be underestimating the amount of crap) — there’s still more non-crap than I can ever find the time to watch. Which is something I often take comfort in: there so much TV these days that there’s more good stuff than any one person could hope to consume.

Of course, the flip side of that is that the crap is more voluminous than ever, too. And two recent articles trying to corral the crap into something understandable have me wondering whether TV has gone off a deep end.

First, Variety columnist Brian Lowry looks at the “wackadoodle demo” that TV appears to be catering to lately, with programming such as the ravings of Glenn Beck, the History Channel’s “specials” on stuff such as Nostradamus and 2012, TruTV’s Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura, and half of Syfy’s programming:

Not to be confused with those drawn to hunting the paranormal and gh-gh-ghosts with infrared lenses (its own disturbing niche), the wackadoodle subspecies encompasses folks who gravitate toward conspiracy theories, end-of-the-world prophecies, alien abduction, and other beliefs generally associated with wearing tin-foil hats. And while one might assume this is a difficult group for advertisers to bank on, programmers appear more than content to scratch their (perhaps UFO- or government-induced) itches.

Wackadoodle TV doesn’t really worry about distinguishing between truth and fiction. In fact, it often seems to welcome the parallels between them, as in History’s obvious “2012” tie-in, or Syfy’s upcoming “Inside Secret Government Warehouses: Shocking Revelations,” a two-hour special transparently designed to promote the channel’s series “Warehouse 13.”

Lester Holt — the NBC newsman, who has clearly put his journalistic credibility in a blind trust — hosts the special, which comes from Peacock Prods., an offshoot of NBC News. Eschewing subtlety, the documentary frequently uses clips from “Warehouse 13” and movies — illustrating its section on Area 51, the secretive base in Nevada long rumored to house aliens, with footage from “Independence Day.”

Today USA Today explores whether TV is teaching viewers to overreact:

[M]ost of us know the “out-there” reactions we see on reality and cable TV are largely for effect. But behavioral researchers say we may be more affected than we realize.

On reality TV, competitors or housemates engage in over-the-top antics that create rivalry and conflict for entertainment value; in real life, we watch outbursts, even on the House floor in Washington — and pundits criticize the president for not displaying enough emotion when things go wrong.

The fact that there’s much more exposure to all kinds of media today just may alter our sense of emotional norms so exaggerated responses seem normal, some experts say.

Now, I remember, from my childhood, whackadoodle shows such as In Search Of… (the clear predecessor to History’s and Syfy’s “documentaries”) and contestants overreacting on The Price Is Right. But it does seem like there’s a helluva lot more of that kind of thing today.

Has TV simply gone crazy? And is it changing at least some people? Or is it just a way for concern-trolling journalists to fill column space?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • RogerBW

    I have suspected for some time that the frame rate of TV is in a convenient place to have a mildly hypnotic effect. But maybe it’s just that people who watch lots of it are already prone to become dullards.

    Weirdness goes in waves. Right now it’s superannuated conspiracy-theory stuff. Before that it was the new age revival. No idea what’s coming next…

  • P.

    Maybe this is the lowbrow equivalent of the literary memoir craze from a few years ago.

    You remember the literary memoir craze? “Angela’s Ashes,” and so forth. They look like fiction, are written like fiction, and read like fiction, but everything in them is “true” because there are plenty of people who think stuff that isn’t true is a waste of time.

    So maybe conspiracy stuff is lowbrow sci-fi and speculative fiction for the “fiction is for chumps” crowd.

    Also, pseudo-fiction filmmaking is cheaper than real fiction, because, while it uses all the tricks of 3 act structures and character arcs, pseudo-fiction doesn’t have to be nearly as artistic. This is why feature films look pretty and documentaries look mostly like garbage.

    Just a theory.

  • The overreacting thing. I first noticed that when Princess Diana died. William Hague, the opposition Conservative leader, made a dignified and understated statement that I found quite touching. Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a speech liberally embellished with bad acting, obviously pretending, unconvincingly, to be on the verge of tears. The consensus afterwards was that Blair had caught the mood of the nation, and Hague had gaffed. The electorate watch so many soaps they find bad acting more convincing than genuineness.

    I suppose the equivalent on your side of the pond would be Bill Clinton’s spectacularly insincere insistence that “I feel your pain” – or those bloody actresses accepting Oscars while apparently undergoing complete psychological breakdowns.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Everybody is wackadoodle about something or other. So collectively the audience for wackadoodle programming includes 100% of the market, though of course to each his or her own niche.

    Annoying wackadoodle: those too humourless or conceited to admit it and laugh at themselves.

    Scary wackadoodle: those who completely lack awareness of their particular eccentricities.

  • Whackadoodle? Or pandering to the lowest common denominator? Remember when news magazine programmes weren’t entirely devoted to lurid murders? When TLC really stood for The Learning Channel and featured awesome series such as Great Books? When Arts and Entertainment actually had arts? (And entertainment?)


  • Dre in Spain

    For me, the popularity of this sort of television always equates with the availability of marijuana. For example, I love watching silly conspiracy theories if I’m off my head. As everyone says, they are cheap and easy to do, and don’t offer much in the way of coherent argument.
    I hate to offer up the brilliance of Charlie Brooker AGAIN, but seriously, for incisive media criticism he is the chap. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QN_hd9LeSs&feature=related

    As @Patrick Brown says (to paraphrase) the perception of media changed with princess diana, no longer was our news based on fact, it became based on emotion.*ahem*, watch Charlie Brooker AGAIN.
    So, to summarise, with illicit substances, silly documentaries are great, however to inform the public at large, they are shite.

  • As @Patrick Brown says (to paraphrase) the perception of media changed with princess diana, no longer was our news based on fact, it became based on emotion.

    Actually I suspect it began way before that: back in the 1980s, when we started taking TV personalities like Geraldo Rivera and Morton Downey, Jr, seriously. Then, of course, there was the coverage of the Baby Jessica incident in which any person who argued that 24/7 coverage of a small child stuck in a well didn’t merit endless news coverage was considered a heartless fiend. It didn’t hurt that the Baby Jessica incident was a safer and less controversial news story than the then-current Iran-Contra hearings or the then-current Savings and Loans Scandal. After all, who in America could possibly be against rescuing little children from a big hole in the ground?

    It didn’t help when the advent of 24-hour news stations led not to more coverage of otherwise obscure news stories but more and more people covering the same damn stories and treating every obscure detail as the hottest news story since the JFK assassination.

    As for the shift from fact to emotion, well, there are some who contend that JFK won over Nixon during the 1960 presidential debates based on appearance if for no other reason than the fact that so many people who listened to the debates on the radio thought Nixon was the winner.

    But even if it did start with the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that it became more and more unavoidable.

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