Sunday, April 24, 2005

Everything You Thought You Knew Is Wrong

"Watching TV Makes You Smarter"
"Skeptics might argue that I have stacked the deck here by focusing on relatively highbrow titles like ''The Sopranos'' or ''The West Wing,'' when in fact the most significant change in the last five years of narrative entertainment involves reality TV. Does the contemporary pop cultural landscape look quite as promising if the representative show is ''Joe Millionaire'' instead of ''The West Wing''?

I think it does, but to answer that question properly, you have to avoid the tendency to sentimentalize the past. When people talk about the golden age of television in the early 70's -- invoking shows like ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' and ''All in the Family'' -- they forget to mention how awful most television programming was during much of that decade. If you're going to look at pop-culture trends, you have to compare apples to apples, or in this case, lemons to lemons. The relevant comparison is not between ''Joe Millionaire'' and ''MASH''; it's between ''Joe Millionaire'' and ''The Newlywed Game,'' or between ''Survivor'' and ''The Love Boat.''

What you see when you make these head-to-head comparisons is that a rising tide of complexity has been lifting programming at the bottom of the quality spectrum and at the top. ''The Sopranos'' is several times more demanding of its audiences than ''Hill Street'' was, and ''Joe Millionaire'' has made comparable advances over ''Battle of the Network Stars.'' This is the ultimate test of the Sleeper Curve theory: even the junk has improved."

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