TV functions as the modern equivalent of the fire that thousands of generations of people sat around each evening for as long as we were us. My guess is that a lot of storytelling always went on in that setting. Most of the stories were probably told by the elders. The stories would be funny or dramatic or sad or uplifting, and many times they would be instructive about how to live in the surrounding society — even if the lesson was only implied. And other members of the family could tell stories too, even the children — getting to be the center of attention and feel important in the family in the process. Storytelling explained the world and passed cultures on in a warm, community-building way.*
Commercial TV, as practiced in the United States since the 1950s, took all that away from us. A brand new kind of mesmerizing ever-changing light for the family to stare at in the evening darkness, it might have been a worthy replacement for the old ways, except for the differences in motivation of the old and new storytelling. American TV has always told stories that were motivated by one single desire — the desire to grab and hold your attention in order to sell you stuff. That means that every aspect of the storytelling art became meretricious. There is little or no “art” per se, left, in fact, because creators don’t get to make decisions freely about what will be in their stories. Choices are dictated mostly by the need to sell, sell sell!
The worst aspect of this is that TV stories have increasingly tried to show the most extreme aspects of everything, because that’s what the manipulators behind them know will grab your attention. That’s why we have so many shows about inherently disgusting things, like serial killers, and how to figure out who killed decomposing dead people. (“CSI” comes to mind.) Cumulatively, this has the subliminal effect of making people believe that crime is much more of a danger to them than it is. We become nervous, ever-watchful, and ever more eager to buy guns to defend ourselves from the unlikely “dangers” that have been made to seem to surround us on every side.
TV stories also routinely misrepresent society, because no-one will be in a buying mood if he’s reminded that he lives in an economically perilous society that cares nothing about him. So all stories on American TV take place among the upper middle class or the wealthy. Poor people are never mirrored positively, and the reality they live is therefore marginalized. On TV they are nothing, zeroes. That is not good for their self esteem. And their excision from the TV world also subliminally mirrors our society to us in a falsely positive light, promoting right-wing politics.
In the last and worst place, by taking over all storytelling, traditional, non-Internet TV took away from children, and in fact all “everyday” people, the chance to shine in an extended, creative way by successfully telling complete stories. There are only so many pleasures to be had in the course of a human life. We couldn’t afford to lose one that cool.
Now, luckily, the age-old gathering around the fire has been rekindled in the form of the Internet. On sites like YouTube, Twitter, and untold millions of blogs, we can all participate in telling stories again. True, the people who want to “drive” us (as they are tellingly fond of saying) to their selling sites still predominate, but before we could not turn away from their offerings without turning off that hypnotizing central light — a very hard things to do. Now we can flit away in a moment to another web page or video. It is a golden age of information, interaction, and participation.
But unfortunately, in the USA at least, the “driving” power of greed is immense and ever-renewing. We’re seeing ever more elaborate ways being developed to track us as we navigate the Internet, so that, though we may now escape junk programming as we never could while watching TV, we cannot escape advertising**. In addition, watch for sites like YouTube to be increasingly morphed toward the top-down model of program creation. The history of American electronic media is a story of ever-increasing narrowing of the fare that the people who run the media will offer us. (Listen to commercial radio — a selection of stations — for a few days, and you’ll get the idea. In the early years of broadcast radio it offered everything from farm reports to soprano recitals.)
This narrowing reflects the practice of “programming to the lowest common denominator” — meaning only providing stuff that the most unsophisticated viewer could love, on the assumption that everyone else will turn off half his brain and watch it too, rather than have nothing to watch at all. The great virtue of this approach for content producers is that they only have to produce the entertainment equivalent of burgers and fries, yet they will still get big audiences.
For the foreseeable future there will be tremendous pressure from powerful interests to control the Internet and narrow its options so that this time-honored approach can be used on us again. I will fight against that, and I hope you will to.
The best way to do so, IMHO, is to support net neutrality.
* See this review of a really interesting book:
Review: How storytelling shaped humanity
- 25 May 2009 by Kate Douglas
- Book information:
- On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction by Brian Boyd
- Published by: Belknap Press
- Price: $35/£25.95
** That is, unless you use Firefox with the add-on called AdBlock installed, in which case you don’t have to see much advertising at all.