Tag Archives: TV

The “Real” Purpose of TV (& Movies): Education, Inspiration, and Storytelling, Part 2

A few years ago, I wrote a post about the purpose of TV and I think I sold it (TV) short. That is, in that post, I essentially decried TV:

Watching TV is a mechanism that allows people to stay at jobs that they are otherwise less pleased about. Being able to tune into a created reality (or sometimes an actual reality) of a situation that they envy or can vicariously live through is something that I think allows people to feel better about themselves and by extension their life. Feeling better about one’s life makes one less likely to reflect on the things that aren’t going as well as they would have planned in life. So, like I said, I don’t proclaim to know the real purpose of TV, but I think that it can be argued that a fair majority of television is meant to entertain, allow for escapism, and sustain employment.

While I still think that there’s some truth to what I wrote over 4 years ago, as I indicated earlier, I think I’ve sold TV short. And while we’re at it, movies, too. Maybe there’s more to TV and film than entertainment, escapism, and employment. Well, of course there is, but let’s get into it.

Maybe there’s also an element of education to it. Remember my post from the other week on fictional presidents and the sunk cost trap? If the the script were written differently, that could have shown viewers the more optimal choice.

Or what about the idea that watching a TV show or a movie can inspire us? Last year, Reese Witherspoon starred (and was rightfully nominated for an Oscar!) in the movie Wild. The movie was based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir regarding her trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. Importantly, the movie didn’t give viewers misconceptions about hiking 2,500 miles. It’s hard. With that being said, consider this:

“People are definitely worried about the ‘Wild’ effect, though we can’t really figure out what it is yet,” said Dan Moe, a baker from Portland, Oregon who’s hiking this year.

He said while he thinks there are more hikers on the trail this year, he hasn’t yet met anyone who’s out there because of the book or film.

“At least they don’t admit it,” he said.

To add to that:

Before the book was published, about 300 people would take out permits to attempt the full hike, which usually takes four to five months. It’s not yet known how many will try this year, but estimates range from 1,600 to 3,000 — 10 times the number who tried before the book came out.

So, while we may be wrong to infer causality here, there certainly appears to be a correlation worth noting.

There are two more things I want to address. The first, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” This is the motto of a movie/documentary of which I’ve written about many times before: Miss Representation. There has certainly been a lot of progress (at least there appears to have been) since that movie came out, with regard to women having more prominent roles, but similar to the anecdote from above, I’d caution on inferring causality. However, I will say that I’m glad to hear that it appears that there’s this concerted effort arising. For instance, did you know that there’s going to be female Thor? Or that they’re bringing back Macgyver as a female?

Lastly, there’s the idea that TV is a mechanism for storytelling. While that may seem obvious, consider the time before movies, TV, and radio, when we’d have to sit around the fire and tell stories to each other. This was the way that many things were passed on from generation to generation and now we have things like the Internet where we don’t even need to hear the story from someone — we can read all about it (and the blatant hyperbole contained within).

There was a great article on Vox a couple weeks back with the main thesis that the recent string of superhero movies have been an attempt to rewrite the images of 9/11. It’s really a very interesting read and I encourage you to check it out, but I think this adds to the idea that TV (and movies) are and can be much more to us than a place to escape. They can also be a place where we heal. That may seem somewhat ironic given that the average American spends 3 hours a day watching TV (and, in a sense, accelerates their ageing/death because of sedentariness), but maybe it’s time we have a bit more compassion for those among us who would rather go to the movies or binge-watch a season of Star Trek.

The Sunk Cost Trap on TV: Fitzgerald Grant and Olivia Pope

A few months ago on the popular TV series “Scandal,” the fictional President of the United States fell into the sunk cost trap:

We have to get Olivia back, not just because I love her, not just because having her out there is a threat to national security. There are soldiers who are never coming home because I tried to get her back. Someone’s father, someone’s husband. I have killed so many mothers’ sons trying to get her back. The flags placed on the coffins where they lay are there because they had the courage to give their lives and I did not have the courage to give Liv’s, so she has to come back because their sacrifice damn well has to mean something. They cannot have died for nothing. They cannot have gone to their death for no other reason than I asked them to.

If you’ll remember from my post about the sunk cost trap a couple of years ago:

The United States has invested much in attempting to achieve its objectives. In addition to the many millions of dollars that have been spent, many thousands of lives have been lost, and an even greater number of lives have been irreparably damaged. If the United States withdraws from Vietnam without achieving its objectives, then all of these undeniably significant sacrifices would be wasted.

Do you see the parallels?

Now, I totally get why the writers of Scandal couldn’t have the fictional President of the United States not continue to try and rescue Olivia Pope (how could there be a show without Olivia?), but I wish they didn’t have to write it in this way. In actuality, based on what he’s saying, it sounds like he’s come to the realization that sending more troops to war is a bad idea, so right there — right at the point — is when he should stop sending troops to war. Right then, he has the knowledge that continuing down the same path is the wrong thing to do, so he should stop. His rationalization for continuing is the sunk cost trap.

The thing that worries me is that by having things play out like this, it’s almost affirming that what the President is doing is the “right” thing or that it is the only choice he has. Certainly, there are plenty of other courses of actions he could have chose (many that probably wouldn’t make for good TV). Most people probably won’t find themselves in a situation where they’re forced to continue a war (or start a war, for that matter) for dubious reasons (or any reason, for that matter), but seeing stuff like this on TV, in a way, gives people an idea of how they can do things. I’d much rather popular entertainment actually err on the side of educating viewers, if it’s going to incorporate lessons of this nature.

I can already hear you yelling at me that this doesn’t make for good TV or entertainment (I know, I alluded to that earlier), but can’t we find a way to blend effective decision-making with entertainment, so that while we’re being entertained, we’re also learning something, too?

How to Stop Binge-Watching

Thirty-years ago if you told someone that you ‘binge-watched’ MacGyver over the weekend they would have looked at you funny — mostly because binge-watching wasn’t really common parlance, but also because you couldn’t binge-watch in the 80s the way that you can now. Today, you can fire up your computer (or set-top box) and stream episode after episode. Heck, you could even watch episode after episode on DVD or blu-ray, if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s become so easy to binge-watch shows and in part, is contributing to people actually binge-watching more shows.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t binge-watched a show. In fact, that was part of the reason that I first signed up for Netflix in February of 2013 — to watch House of Cards. And did I watch one episode and then wait a week? No. I finished the first season in a weekend. I also finished season 2 in a weekend, but who’s keeping track. Well, since we’re confessing, I also caught up on four and a half seasons Breaking Bad relatively quickly (4 or 5 weeks?) before the last half of the final season was to begin.

I should make it clear that I’m not encouraging binge-watching, but simply providing evidence that I’ve got plenty of experience with it, which brings me to my point:

How to stop binge-watching.

I don’t remember how I stumbled on this little trick, but it has certainly helped me when I needed to pull myself away from a set of gripping episodes. This method works particularly well for a show that uses a lot of cliffhangers or plot twists near the end of an episode (Scandal is a good example, however the finale to season three, which was essentially three season finales in one, might confound this). Instead of watching the whole episode before calling it quits for the night/afternoon, you’ve got to stop the episode well before they introduce a new plot twist. One way to do this is to “hang up” very near to the reveal of the climax. It’s in the falling action where they get you!

I realize that the show isn’t meant to be watched in this way, but I’ve found myself, on many occasions, where I wanted to stop watching, but kept getting sucked in at the end of an episode. After enough times of this happening, I realized that I needed to end the episode before the end of the episode. Hence, stopping the episode somewhere after the climax (usually somewhere two-thirds into the episode).

One of the potential criticisms to this method is that you’ve got to “fast-forward” to the point where you’ve left off. That’s true only if you’re not using something like Netflix. When you end an episode with Netflix part-way through, it picks up where you’ve left off (in fact, it rewinds it a few seconds sometimes). Since this is pretty much the only way I’ve binge-watched shows, I can attest to it working splendidly.

Solving False Equivalence in Politics?

Last week, John Oliver had a great segment that poked fun at how most (all?) television outlets cover climate change. Take a look:

Upon watching it, I didn’t think that Oliver was going to “even out” the representation in a physical manner. Instead, I thought that he was going to solve the issue of the “talking heads” appearing equal. Let me explain. Watch this:

That’s Lewis Black from the 2006 film, Man of the Year. I have no doubt that this sentiment had been expressed before this film, but this was the first time that I had heard it in this way. Hosting someone on a TV program with ideas that are clearly incorrect and putting their “talking head” up next to someone who has legitimately studied and confirmed that the other person is incorrect is a form of false equivalence.

As Black explains, to the viewer, both of these sides appear “equal.” It appears that one person is expressing an opinion and that the other person has a different opinion. What’s being missed is that one person’s opinion is factually erroneous (just as we saw in the video with Bill Nye earlier).

When I was watching the Oliver video, it made me think that he was going to do something else. I thought he was going to show the two talking heads in boxes (as you usually see on “debates” on political talk shows), but instead of giving them both a 50/50 split on the screen, I thought he was going to ration it more appropriately given the overwhelming support for climate change. I thought he’d give Bill Nye’s box 97% of the screen and the other guy’s box 3% of the screen.

I realize that this probably wouldn’t work in an actual talk show, but since I knew it was supposed to be semi-satirical, it seemed like a plausible idea.

On that note, can you imagine if that’s how political talk shows actually did things? That is, instead of having that 50/50 split, when they were talking about something factual, the size of the box for the talking head espousing the nonfactual opinion would be smaller. Of course, there’s all kinds of problem that could be raised with regard to censorship, but it’s certainly creative.

How Big Data Can Make Watching Baseball More Fun

I like baseball. I played it all throughout my youth and my years as a teenager. So, not surprisingly, I also like to watch baseball. Watching baseball on TV has come quite a ways. While baseball was first televised in the 1930s, instant replay didn’t come along until almost 1960. Nowadays, you can’t watch a game without seeing just about every “key play” replayed. From the replay of the last double in the gap to the last pitch that was so close to being called a strike. And on that note about strikes, we can now see a makeshift strike zone on the screen next to the batter/catcher.

My post today is a pitch (pardon the pun) about how to improve the viewing experience in the context of that makeshift strike zone, which on some networks, is called pitch tracker.

On the pitch tracker, we can see a few things that have happened during the at bat. We can see where each pitch crossed the plate and at what height. We can also see if the pitch was fouled off and if the pitch was a ball. While all of this great, in my opinion, there is one major flaw to all of this — the “strike zone” isn’t universal. That is, as many players will tell you, each umpire has a different “strike zone.” Some umpires like to call a “wider” strike zone. Meaning, on the screen, it will appear as though the pitch is quite a few inches outside of the strike zone, the umpire calls that pitch a strike.

To the casual fan this may be confusing, but to a fan who watches baseball frequently, this may be frustrating. Especially as the game wears on, you might hear the announcer state that the last pitch was called a strike earlier in the game, but now it’s being called a ball. I’d like to eliminate the need for the announcer to tell me this. I’d also like to eliminate the confusion of the fan who sees a pitch that appears outside the strike zone, but is called a strike. How can we do this? Big Data.

Umpires go through a rigorous process before becoming an MLB umpire. As a result, their strike zone will probably be pretty much set in stone by the time they get to umpire their first MLB game. I propose that instead of using the “standard” or traditional strike zone on the screen during the game that networks show us the strike zone of the umpire. So, if an umpire usually calls strikes that appear 6 inches outside, we can see that because that’s the strike zone on the screen. We could even using a rolling average of the umpire’s career, such that only the last 3 seasons are taken into account when creating the strike zone on the screen.

The reason I suggested Big Data as the solution to this is because of all the sports, baseball is one of the ones with reams of data. Bill James did an excellent job of using data to allow us to better understand the success and failure of players, I think it’s time we use some of that data to make watching baseball just a bit more interesting.

Should We Be Reading Instead of Binge-Watching?

If you’ll recall from yesterday’s post, humans are wired for binge-watching. I wonder — are we spending too much time “vegging out” binge-watching when we’d be better off reading?

The map above comes from a post from Gizmodo earlier this month. It might be a bit hard to read the numbers, but it shows the average amount of time spent by each country reading. India comes out on top reading, on average, 10 hours and 42 minutes per week. The US, by comparison, reads a little more than half as much as India at 5 hours and and 42 minutes per week. Canada’s not much better at 5 hours and 48 minutes.

I wonder if this data is affected by the availability of TV or maybe more specifically, the cultural availability of TV. Let me explain: in countries like the US, watching TV isn’t just something that’s an option when you’re trying to figure out what to do when you come home from work or school, it’s the norm. People have whole rooms dedicated for just TV watching. I’d suspect that this isn’t the case in other parts of the world where space is a premium. If I think about a country like India where 4 times as many people than there are in the US, I wonder if going off and reading a book somewhere might be a more desirable activity than trying to watch TV with 4, 5, or 6 other people. In the US, there’s the joke about who gets to have the TV controller — the husband or the wife. I wonder what the equivalency would be when you’re fighting for the controller with 2 aunts and uncles, along with your cousins.

Regardless, as I alluded to in the second sentence, North Americans might be better off taking after the rest of the world by burying their heads in a good book. Or, maybe it’s time to hit the gym.

What’s Better: Binge-Watching TV or Movies?

Quite some time ago (maybe 1-3 years ago?), I remember Matt Yglesias writing something about how movies were far superior to TV shows. That opinion has stuck with me for a while. It’s not that I agreed or disagreed, but I found the idea curious. With the explosion of binge-watching, I wondered if Matt Yglesias still thinks that movies were far superior to TV shows.

That is, when you can watch 3-5 hours of a TV show and really get into the intricacies of the plot in one sitting, does that somehow make it better than a 1.5- to 2-hour movie?

More recently, there’ve been a couple of interesting articles about movies and binge-watching. The first, on movies, discusses how going to the movies is a shared experience and how that might be dying out. The author explains that fewer people are going to the movies, even though ticket sales are at an all-time high (increased prices). She closes by saying that she thinks only a limited number of movies will debut in the theatre and the rest will go straight to video.

I think she’s right — the movies as a shared experience is dying out. However, I don’t think “shared experiences” are dying out. Instead, I think they’re moving away from the movies to other events like the one the author mentions, but not in the same context, the Oscars. Or perhaps the Superbowl is another good example. More than that, I wonder if we’re substituting the shared collective experience of going to the movies for binge-watching.

The second article, on binge-watching, argued that humans are wired to binge-watch. With the rise of online video streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon (Prime), it’s not surprising that people are spending more time watching videos online and at home than they are going out to the theatre. I would posit that as more people binge-watch, the more other people also want to binge-watch.

Think about shows like House of Cards or Orange is the New  Black. These shows were released all at once on a Friday. As a result, some people will have watched the whole season before going back to work on Monday. As a way to stay “part of the conversation,” some people may feel compelled to watch the whole season, too. Given that we’re already wired to binge-watch, it’s not surprising that this might become self-reinforcing. 

This leads me to my argument that binge-watching might be replacing movie-going as the norm when it comes to shared experiences. After you’ve binge-watched House of Cards or some other series, maybe you start binge-watching that series that you never got into when it was on TV (Lost? Frasier? The West Wing?). There are a lot of series that are on Netflix and there are also lots of series on some of the other online streaming sites.

After having a baby fall asleep on my lap/shoulder night after night, I think my vote might be for binge-watching.