Puzzle time: why is contemporary culture becoming more complicated?

LostLost. Alias24.  Something is happening on TV we don’t expect of a "wasteland."  Some prime time shows are becoming complicated.

Day time TV was often complicated.  Soaps shamelessly so.  And occasionally, soaps migrated to night time, there to wow us with narrative improbabilities (e.g., Bobby Ewing redux) and to prove that continuity was probably more trouble than it was worth, and, actually, a good way of spoiling the fun (to say nothing of the franchise). 

Prime time TV is, as we say, episodic.  Each show was supposed to be free standing and one-off.  No prior knowledge was presumed.  If we had seen the show before, great.  If not, never mind.  Narrative constructions like Rockford Files or Two and a Half Men are so structurally simple and referentially redundant, that prior introductions were quite unnecessary.   (In any case, a car chase is, forgive me, not so hard to follow.)

Prime time TV was not about continuities.  It was about episodes.  The world that just kept starting over.  Time didn’t happen.  Events didn’t accumulate.  There were no critical paths, no path dependencies, no differences that ever made a difference over the long term.  Typically, people didn’t age.  They didn’t change.  They didn’t grow.  Outside the narrow narrative particulars, prime time dramas were timeless and placeless.  It was as if all the characters had a really terrible case of amnesia. 

Clearly, this is changing.  Shows like 24 are really unthinkable without a knowledge of the larger, overarching narrative.  Lost the same.  I am noticing that while House can be watched without a knowledge of narrative continuity, it makes a vast difference when this is in place.  Even with the cheat sheets from Entertainment Weekly (to say nothing of the love notes), Lost remains daunting.

So what is going on here? Henry Jenkins tells us that all consumers of contemporary culture are becoming more sophisticated.  This opens up the possibility of narrative complexity…or at least it helps discourage the "keep it simple, stupid" that was once the watch word of Burbank and Hollywood. 

But even as viewers have become more sophisticated, they have entered an era of time poverty, attention deficit, and information overload.  For my own sake, the idea of sitting down to work out the complexities of 24 make my eyes roll back in my head.  Or to adapt the language of Robert Hutchins, a formative president of the University of Chicago, "whenever I feel the temptation to watch Alias, I lie down until it passes."

So there are powerful forces working against the trend towards complexity.  That it persists and appears actually now to flourish suggests that the "forces for" must be very strong indeed. 
So what are they?  Beyond the new media literacy, what drives the trend to offer TV narrative that replaces the old strategy (broad access to shallow narrative) with a much more demanding one (narrower access to deeper narrative)? 

For those who care about the study of contemporary culture, this is a nice little challenge, a rich little anomaly.  Individually, and more probably collectively, we can figure this out.  I would do it myself, but what do you take me for, an anthropologist?

16 thoughts on “Puzzle time: why is contemporary culture becoming more complicated?

  1. debbie millman

    “whenever I feel the temptation to watch Alias, I lie down until it passes.”

    Hysterical! How true. I now watch Alias, but I only picked it up in the Third Season. Got the first two seasons on DVD in order to catch up, but gave up watching the back episodes after watching Disc One of Season One. I found both catching up and watching the real time episodes just too daunting a task.

    It wasn’t until the beginning of the Fourth Season that I was finally able to make sense of the storyline (I think). If it weren’t for Syd’s great wardrobe I likely would’ve given up altogether.

    Welcome back. Life wasn’t the same without This Blog.

  2. Kevin Marks

    Stephen Johnson’s ‘Everything Bad is Good For You’ covers this at some length. Broadly, it comes back to storage and control. Now we can record such shows, or get them on DVD to watch when we want to, we can decide to watch them in order, and not just at the whim of the TV schedulers, so there is a big payoff for the producers to construct longer narrative works (a direct one in DVD sales).
    Also, with the net to provide a parallel space for narrative exegesis, conversation and debate around the shows, we can pick up missed narrative threads, or metaphysical speculations and interpretations that make it more interesting. Look at the ‘Bad Wolf’ thread through the 2005 Dr Who series.

  3. Jüri Saar

    “So there are powerful forces working against the trend towards complexity. That it persists and appears actually now to flourish suggests that the “forces for” must be very strong indeed.

    So what are they? Beyond the new media literacy, what drives the trend to offer TV narrative that replaces the old strategy (broad access to shallow narrative) with a much more demanding one (narrower access to deeper narrative)? ”

    I think one force might be the digitalization of content. It seems to me that more and more people are willing to rely on TiVo’s and DVD’s (as well as downloads both legal and illegal) for their entertainment, choosing when and what they want to whatch. People are not so much interested in what is being served at a specific time and just making due with what is offered but instead choosing stories that interest them.

    People have more choice and getting to that choice is easier than ever before – download, order or press a few buttons, all from the comfort of your home. My guess is that technology plays a significant part in this as it’s easier to find those interested in the deeper narrative. I’m also tempted to say that the various internet sites related to the shows (surely blogs as well)function more and more as drivers of complexity as information about a show (even if it;s just impressions) is gathered and disseminated.

    To me, this is the most obvious and easiest to spot driver of the “narrower but deeper” trend.

  4. Oz

    Interesting question – and I think the TiVo and DVD’s explain the current explosion – but it seems to me that the earlier examples of complicated shows (Alias, 24) started before TiVo and DVD collections were as ubiquitous as they were today. Were they just one end of a steady continuum, or was there a trend of more complication before the new technology?

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  6. Ken King | King Marketing

    Here’s a link to Steven Johnson’s NYT article from last April (http://tinyurl.com/chxgj), which outlines the ideas expanded upon in Everything Bad is Good for You. There are some really cool graphs there that show the relative complexity of TV over the years, comparing an episode of Dragnet to Hill Street Blues and Sopranos episodes.

    As Kevin mentions above, Johnson cites the opportunity to market DVDs as incentive to create content that stands up to repeat viewing; earlier on, syndication provided that incentive.

    One other interesting tidbit in the article: it points out that while many credit Hill Street Blues with starting this trend towards complicated multi-thread narratives, the structure was actually used first on TV in soap operas.

  7. Carol Gee

    Grant, welcome back. Re complexity of plots that “hook” us, they really started with the serial shorts at the Saturday afternoon movies when I was a kid. I also started listening to the soaps on the radio when I was a child in the early fifties, because we did not have a TV. In my opinion, the other piece of the phenomenon is the (perhaps over-simplified) idea of belonging to a group. Talking about the latest episode at work is easier is you have seen the most recent show. The most interesting evolution is, I think, the marriage of “reality” shows with the idea of an ongoing narrative. This is a big loss of dramatic quality, though the characters could still carry the day. What is missing is the quality writing, the key to maintaining my interest.

  8. Grant

    Debbie, thanks for your kind words, looking forward to seeing you lots in the new year. Best, Grant

    Kevin, Thanks for the head’s up on the Johnson book. This is one of those things I can be relied upon to pretend I’ve read when it comes up in cocktail conversation. I guess now I’m going to have to. I thought he made the case for complexity more than continuity. And actually come to think of it, Robert Thompson at Syracase makes the argument that TV is actually better at certain kinds of narrative than say the movies because it has so much longer to dwell upon character development. Thanks, Grant

    Juri, nice thinking, I have a friend who recently “caught up” with Lost by watching all of season 1 on a trip to London. And Debbie (above) is doing the same. And I like the idea that with websites and blogging we are effectively “watching together.” Someone out there is this world of exquisitely connected strangers can supply essential knowledge in the event we miss an episode. Thanks, Grant

    Ken, Great points. Yes, I always thought that Stephen Botchko (sp) helped to demonstrate that narrative connotation was actually more interesting than narrative denotation, not least because it gave us room to fill in on our own, and we are all now pretty talented suppliers of the cultural feed. Thanks, Grant

    Carol, splendid, reality programming is all about the continuity, with an open ended ness that means that even when we supply analysis and predictions the show has an element, a capacity, for surprise that even ambitious writers could probably not supply. Thanks, Grant

  9. Grant

    Posted by Grant for Jens

    “niche cultures” is one answer.
    will shared cultural platforms disappear? that would be the next question.

    with thomas schelling’s “dynamic models of segregation” in mind – one might thing so
    the internet does not bring us closer together – it brings us further apart, is what nicholas carr says

    and on a personal note: my significant other would definitely agree with that.

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  11. Chuck

    Just a few weeks ago I found your blog and really became interested in your comments. Tonight I got a great sponatenous laugh from your comments on trends in TV viewing “What am I, an anthropologist?” Quite funny! Thanks!

    Anyway I’ll toss my hat in the ring on this subject now, even though I know I should think about it more. But, what the heck, I am DEFINITLY not an anthropologist… I haven’t watched TV since March 25, 05. No GREAT story there, other than it was a challenge and I had become addicted to TV. More HBO than anything else.

    How I see the trend – HBO started it. They needed to be innovative to get viewership, and somebody got creative and determined that I needed to be exposed to characters actions and responses that were totally unfamiliar, while at the same timepart of a history that I was familiar with.Because they were so unfamiliar they became somewhat dangerous –Killing, cussing – real life exposed in the raw. I was ready for it because my life – the uncertainty of my future, the lack of “specialness that I felt about myself” – drew me to be attached to the so called seamy side of life (Sopranos, Wired, OZ, Carnevale,etc.) And for a change, reality became a litte more safe to discuss. Compared to these shows my reality was safer.

    Plus, our global world is growing and I need to be part of it, and to grow I need to be a little more exposed to variations on life. Just like you said somewhere that I read, “Where once the most important product was the guarantee of sameness and uniformity, what sells today increasingly is variation…”

    It was refreshing to think about the topic.

  12. conchis

    Random thought (kind of developing a couple of points above):

    It’s possible that time scarcity is actually part of what’s driving the shift to continuity. Because we have less time, we change the way we watch: people are less inclined to just flick the TV on and see what’s on, than to plan to set aside time for specific shows. The former demands a format that catches the attention for half an hour to and hour, something that’s impeded by continuity/complexity. The latter demands a format that hooks people in for the long haul, and keeps them coming back for more, wondering what will happen next time, or the time after that. That’s the sort of show you give a slot in your diary (which also fits with the DVD/technology factor).

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  14. Jack Yan

    Consumers might be getting more sophisticated, but they are also getting busier. I haven’t the time to watch these sorts of shows, and I class 24, Lost and Alias as soaps. I have about an hour a day to watch TV—and I will opt to put in a DVD or video cassette. What’s on it? Usually one of those old, self-contained, single-hour episodes that I grew up with. I just don’t care if those Lost kids get off the island, nor do I wonder how Jack Bauer fits in around six hours of events into his 60 minutes. Maybe my life is more interesting.

  15. Renee Hopkins Callahan

    Hi Grant —

    I think it’s about relationships. Like you, I’ve resisted getting involved in too many complex TV shows because I don’t have time for the relationship! Complexity in the narrative makes these characters more real, gives us more to work with as we come to care about them. The new availability of whole seasons of TV shows on DVD helps cement the relationship. Personally, my rule is one TV show at a time. Besides college football 🙂 I currently only watch “The Gilmore Girls.” It’s not as complex as “Lost” or “24” (both of which I shy away from, as you do!). But it’s smartly written with dialogue so fast and snappy you have to get the DVDs just to see what references you missed as they went whizzing by on the first broadcast.

  16. Penny

    The amount of information and entertainment available to us has increased greatly over the last few decades. Our brains are adapting somehow, and we can process more info now. We don’t just like complexity, we WANT it.

    In the 70s I liked Kojak. I saw an episode recently and it was soooo boring. Not enough going on. That’s why shows have added other content like forensics (CSI, Bones), more history (Cold Case, In Justice) and even math (Numb3rs).

    I watch a lot of cop shows, (obvious from the above) and this trend is clearly visible here. It’s probably visible elsewhere, but I haven’t given it much thought.

    Anyway, my point is that viewers have been changed by the increased volume of info we absorb every day, and TV is changing to keep our interest.

    Just found your blog, and will add it to my blog rounds.

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