Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

Jolts Per Minute

In trying to describe the difference between American and Canadian television, I came up with the crude but I think useful notion of ‘jolts per minute’ (JPMs). American programmes had far more.

Clearly, it was a coup for 90 Minutes Live [Peter Gzowski’s late evening TV show] to persuade Justice Thomas Berger to appear as a guest on the first of the programme’s nation-wide tryouts. But now that he was on, he was proving to be a problem. In response to a question from Peter Gzowski, Berger began talking quietly, and at length, about what the Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry meant, what the issues were, what his role was. He wasn’t telling most of us anything we didn’t already know, of course, but that was all right. All I wanted — indeed all the interview could possibly give us — was an impression of Berger the man.

If this had been radio, Berger’s answers would probably have been all right with Gzowski too. But this was television and according to the rules of popular television, nothing was happening. Gzowski was getting uptight, and it was obvious he was getting signals from his producer to make something happen. So he awkwardly demanded that Berger tell us what conclusions he’d come to. But the adversarial approach to interviewing doesn’t suit Gzowski, and Berger, surprised by the change in Gzowski’s tone, and quite properly unwilling to discuss his conclusions while the hearings were still under way, retreated into a kind of defensive banality. Mercifully, the interview soon ended.

What the episode revealed was someone (Gzowski) working hard at learning to apply the First Law of Commercial Television. According to that law, the attention span of television viewers is short. Their boredom thresholds are low. If a sufficiently long time goes by on the screen without a verbal or physical assault on someone, or if the visual image doesn’t change often enough, or the sound isn’t loud enough, they will switch channels.

But if you can give them enough physical, verbal, visual and/or aural jolts per minute (JPMs), they won’t. JPMs get the adrenalin flowing and that results in a pleasurable feeling. That’s what American prime-time television programmes are all about — JPMs. That’s how they get the approximately 20-million viewers each show needs to survive. That’s why Canadian television programmes have so much trouble competing; they have too few JPMs.

Given the number of JPMs our viewing of American television has conditioned us to expect, it’s difficult for Canadian programmers to avoid trying to copy the form and content of American television. From that point of view, the treatment of Berger on 90 Minutes Live was understandable; after all, Gzowski was competing for an audience with American talk show hosts. From any other point of view, from that of simple decency to real audience need, his treatment of Berger was depressing. Somehow it seemed appropriate that the interview should be sandwiched between the appearances of a high-wire performer, Jay Cochrane, and a singer, Patsy Gallant, doing an English version of “Mon Pays.” The chorus of the English version endlessly repeated the line, “I’m a star in New York; I’m a star in L.A.”

The episode I’ve described on the Gzowski show is just one small example of what the pursuit of JPMs is doing to all television programming, Canadian — and American. It’s also doing some interesting things to the viewers themselves. Consider the following:

1) We’ve become so accustomed to a certain number of JPMs (our appetite for more and more seems insatiable) that it becomes increasingly difficult for us to watch anything slow-paced on television. My guess is that’s why CBS’s Beacon Hill [a serious dramatic programme] went off the air. It moved too slowly for people whose attention spans have been shaped by the verbal aggressiveness of All in the Family and the physical violence of Police Story. I think that’s why serious drama on CBC television has been getting such comparatively low “enjoyment indexes” and why fast-paced “journalistic” dramas do so much better. It’s not that serious plays on the CBC are poor. Some are as good as those produced during the “golden age” of TV drama. What’s changed in the ten to fifteen years since then is us; it’s more difficult to watch serious drama on TV. In a theatre, yes; on television, no.

Jolts Per Minute, continued > 

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