The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'television'


Meanwhile, the UK's media minister has vowed not to allow product placement in British-produced television programmes, saying that to do so would compromise the high esteem in which British television is held worldwide.

(Is British television still held in the same high esteem it was years ago, though? There is a good deal of unoriginal and generally cheap programming being made in Britain these days. Meanwhile, American television seems to have transcended its reputation for lowest-common-denominator programming, with series winning acclaim.)

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Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, posits an interesting theory: that entertainment television, an arguably stupefying medium, arose in the 20th century as a temporary coping mechanism for dealing with a surplus of free time and cognitive capacity, a way for people to harmlessly manage free time they had no traditional uses for. A parallel he quotes was the explosion in consumption of gin (in those days a disreputable, highly intoxicating drink) during the mass migration from the countryside to the cities in Britain:

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.
And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders--a lot of things we like--didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.
Television, Shirky argues, fulfils the same role. During the 20th century, a majority of the population found itself with something they didn't have before: free time. Since there was no use for this, it was more of a crisis than an opportunity, and once again, society turned to an intoxicant as a means of control:
If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.
And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.
We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.
Now, Shirky claims, society is figuring out ways to use surplus cognitive capacity more productively than by watching sitcoms. With the internet, people are starting to turn the television off and use their time, if not more productively, more interactively. This can take the form of amateur collective efforts such as Wikipedia or of pasting captions onto photographs of cats or playing multiplayer games. (Granted, in this early stage, even contributions to Wikipedia often are about TV shows, but this will probably pass):
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
This is not a passing phase, Shirky asserts, but a profound social shift; he cites as an example an anecdote illustrating that young children today are already in a post-television mindset, in which a one-directional consumeristic medium is seen as broken, rather than just as "the way things are and have always been":
I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."
Will, in a generation or two, our descendents look back on the entire 20th century as an age of stupidity and conformism, sort of like the mythical Leave-it-to-Beaver 1950s writ large? (Assuming, of course, they're not too busy avoiding starvation or fighting over the Earth's remaining oil supplies or something.)

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A new Australian comedy TV series titled The Librarians lampoons the ugly side of "middle Australian values" in the age of the Howard dog-whistle:

With staggering ignorance and insensitivity, Butler's character, prim and proper head librarian Frances O'Brien, has just offended the Lebanese community worker on her staff, made patronising remarks about smelly — that is, "ethnic" — food and almost let another staff member topple from a ladder after she is distracted by his shapely bum.
Frances' behaviour, adds Butler, can also be seen as a metaphor for the small-mindedness that exists in pockets of contemporary Australia. "Why are we so worried about petrol and whether Sudanese people should be let in?" she asks rhetorically. "I think what's upset those not wanting Sudanese people in (Australia) has a deeper feeling. I think for most people their unhappiness is generated by something that then causes them to attack, and that's basically what Frances does."
"Middleton is a play on middle Australia. We're fascinated in being told what the majority of Australians think, though you can never quantify anything as ludicrous as that. We like the idea that you can't contain it, and the thing about Frances is that she can't stand mess or complications, so if a situation has more than one result it causes her great anxiety.
The producers of the show are working on another comedy idea, this time looking at the idea that small business is the nation's backbone.

Though, as The Librarians is on the ABC (which, under recent political changes, has to maintain strict political neutrality not only in news and current affairs but all content, including comedy), doesn't this mean that they'd have to devote an equal amount of time to something attacking inner-city latte-sipping/Green-voting/refugee-sheltering cultural elites?

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The latest project for Chris Morris, the satirist who brought us Brass Eye and Nathan Barley, looks set to be a fictionalised TV special about Islamist suicide bombers in Britain:

A casting sheet describes seven characters aged from 17 to 38, with one billed as "the sort of guy who'd protest against cartoons in a bomb belt" while another is "insanely intense, bright, very focused, blind to anything he's not focused on, small seething boffin".
Morris has taken a keen interest in Islamic terrorism and was recently spotted at a terror trial taking copious notes. He was also seen at a seminar on al-Qaida.
Morris also mentioned a while ago that he is working on a second series of Nathan Barley. (Which, IMHO, should be more interesting than The I.T. Crowd, a rather dull and obvious American-style sitcom dressed up in computer-geek garb, and with all the bite of Hey Dad!).

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A new study puts forward the argument that exposure to television in early childhood may trigger autism. The paper established correlations between autism rates and rates of early childhood TV viewing, and increases in autism in 3 US states with the growth of cable television in those states, and suggests that some children may be susceptible to autism but may not develop it unless exposed to environmental triggers, of which television viewing is one.

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Since coming to power just over 10 years ago, Australia's unapologetically right-wing government has been at war with the culture of the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC (which, being a not-for-profit, government-funded entity, tends to attract people with left-wing ideals). Periodic purges of leftists and threats to its funding have kept it mostly timid and less than eager to make trouble for the government or question its agenda, though this is a less than permanent solution. Now the government's Communications Minister has announced plans to change its culture more permanently by introducing advertising.

If this goes through, Australia may soon lack a non-commercial broadcasting network funded on ideals of public service, with everything being turned into a colossal shopping mall of easily digestible mental junk food designed to attract the broadest possible audience, without the risk of challenging anyone's beliefs or requiring them to think. Those who dislike crass, loud, intelligence-insulting ads and programming designed for the lowest common denominator will be out of luck, but then again, such attitudes are fundamentally un-Australian, and have no place in a relaxed and comfortable society.

(As if by coincidence, The Soul Jazz Tropicália CD arrived in the mail today; the booklet, which gives a detailed history of the Tropicália movement and its suppression by the Brazilian military dictatorship, mentions at one stage that immediately after the military coup in 1964, the dictatorship encouraged a "television-based society" to reinforce social control. Television, it seems, is an ideal tool for instilling conformity and passivity, with its passive nature and narcotic pull; after all, why go out and do things in the mundane everyday world if you can involve yourself in the plot of Friends or Lost? And more channels of TV don't seem to be much of an answer; as has been claimed recently, all that replacing a few channels everyone watches with hundreds of niche lifestyle channels does is hasten social atomisation and encourage a sort of nihilistic solipsism and further withdrawal from any sort of social discourse. In short, the effects of television are great if one wants a passive, docile population delegating the consent of the governed to technocrats, not so good if one wants a vigorous social discourse. Discuss.)

And in other news from Australia: the country's political climate may be moving further to the right, with the Christian Fundamentalist Family First party set to win the balance of power in South Australia, getting the preferences of Labor ahead of the Democrats. Family First are the charming people whose policies involve reinforcing social discrimination against homosexuals, stepping up the War On Drugs, and installing a Saudi-style national internet firewall to protect Australians from seeing immoral content online. Now it looks like they may be leaping over the Greens and what's left of the Democrats to become the party of the balance of power for the Howard era.

australia authoritarianism brazil conformism culture war economic rationalism monetarism television 4


The Graun looks at Christmas and New Year's television programming across the world. While Britons get into the Queen's speech (and "alternative" takes by various "edgy" celebrities like Jamie Oliver and Damon Albarn), Americans are shedding tears over Rankin/Bass's animated Frosty The Snowman, Russians are getting maudlin over extended reruns over a 3-hour comedy titled The Irony Of Fate that they have all seen dozens of times before and Romanians are watching action replays of the execution of former dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. Meanwhile, Australians are watching celebrities singing "Aussie carols" like Six White Boomers and Santa Never Made It To Darwin (which, in all my years in Australia, I had never heard of), while their (apparently more self-consciously "British") neighbours in New Zealand watch Only Fools And Horses and Morecambe And Wise. The French seem to have the coolest Christmas TV fare, though:

Since 1982, black-comedy Le Père Noël Est Une Ordure (which translates along the lines of Father Christmas Is A Scumbag) has risen from obscure box-office failure to France's ninth most popular movie. Set on Christmas Eve in a social service helpline call centre, three workers try with varying degrees of failure to spread festive cheer among the depressed, suicidal homeless, heartbroken and bereaved who turn up looking for salvation. Utterly bleak, totally farcical, and very very funny.
Across the border in Germany, however, one of the annual Christmas favourites is, inexplicably, an old British comedy skit named Dinner For One:
Dinner for One, also known as Der 90 Geburtstag (The 90th Birthday), has rattled around the cabaret circuit for decades. Written by British author Lauri Wylie in the 1920s, it presents a morbidly funny story in miniature—(just 11 minutes on TV): Elderly Miss Sophie throws her birthday party every year, setting the table for her friends Sir Toby, Mr. Pommeroy, Mr. Winterbottom, and Adm. von Schneider, while conveniently ignoring the fact that they've all been dead for a quarter-century. Her butler James manfully takes up the slack by playacting all of them. He serves both drinks and food while quaffing toasts on behalf of each "guest," a bevy of soused British noblemen and von Schneider, who toasts Miss Sophie with a heel-click and a throaty "Skål!"
In 1962, German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld stumbled on Dinner for One in Blackpool's seaside circuit. Frankenfeld was so charmed that he invited actors Freddie Frinton and May Warden to perform the sketch on his live TV show Guten Abend, Peter Frankenfeld. The now-classic black-and-white recording dates from a 1963 live performance in Hamburg's Theater am Besenbinderhof.
The skit's popularity has spread across Northern Europe, and it has inspired numerous derivative works, including dubs into regional German dialects, many parodies and a Latin translation. To this day, nobody is entirely sure of why Dinner For One is so big in Germany, though there are theories:
But why? How did a sliver of British humor come to dominate another culture's holidays—with apparently no connective thread back to its source? First, the slapstick of Dinner for One transcends the language barrier. Second, it offers a slight thrill of the verboten: After all, it features a very crazy old lady, a bevy of lecherous male friends, a big stench of post-WWII death, a hell of a lot of drinking, and senior-citizen sex. A third notion, floated by Der Spiegel and the Guardian alike last year, is that the film plays to Germans' worst idea of the British upper class: dotty, pigheadedly traditional, forever marinated in booze despite titles. The BBC counters with the more politic theory that Dinner for One "has become synonymous with British humor, on a par with Mr. Bean." British TV executives see it as fit only for foreigners, or they would rush to broadcast it themselves. Why Germany finds it so funny and the British don't is, according to Der Spiegel's Sebastian Knauer, "one of the last unsolved questions of European integration."
Best of all, Dinner for One is a perfect foundation for a tidy drinking game in which you down four different liquors in 11 minutes, "the same procedure as every year." What more fitting way to ring in the New Year?

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More on the explosion in product placement in television shows, brought about by advertisers' concern that consumers may be skipping ads:

In a recent episode of the NBC series Medium, writers had to work the movie Memoirs of a Geisha into the dialogue three times because of a deal the network made with Sony earlier in the season. They even had the characters go on a date to an early screening of the movie and bump into friends who had just viewed Geisha to tell them how good it was.
Another product placement intruded a touching scene on ABC's soap opera, All My Children, when writers were forced to incorporate a line about a new Wal-Mart perfume into the dialogue as a character, Greenlee, sat at the bedside of her husband who was suffering from a fatal gunshot wound.

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In 1996, a number of Australian indie bands recorded covers of TV show themes for a tribute compilation named Box; this was released on cassette; I recall seeing a copy in PolyEster records back when Paul Elliott ran it. Now, it's available in MP3 form. Hear Wank Engine's cover of the Mr. Squiggle theme, Ninetynine's version of Blake's Seven, New Waver's characteristically Darwinian take on the Four Corners theme and some outfit named Pigshit doing the Degrassi Junior High theme, among others. (Thanks to Greg Wadley for the heads-up.)

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