Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

JOLTS PER MINUTE (continued)

2) In a sense, the content of programmes doesn’t matter, just the form — the number of JPMs. But as the writer, Ken Sobol, put it in a submission to the Ontario Royal Commission on Violence in the Communications Industry: “The problem with this technique is that with it, violence becomes a structural rather than a story element. It’s there automatically, before the story, not as a result of it. It becomes what we could call producer-imposed violence, existing purely as a means of giving the audience a quick jolt, in hopes of keeping it interested until the next jolt. It is violence directed not so much against a character in a story — we almost never know a victim well enough to care much about him or her — as violence directed against the nervous system of the viewer.”

3) There’s some speculation about what the effect will be on television programming now that it’s clear that eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old women are the prime purchasers in our economy and, therefore, the prime targets of television advertisers. My own guess is that nothing important will change. What will happen is that the emphasis will switch from the physical jolts men tend to prefer (sports and police programmes) to the verbal and emotional jolts women tend to prefer (game shows, sit-coms, and soap operas).

4) The more spectacular and superficial programmes are, the more people are interested in them. That’s true not only of police and talk shows but of news and public affairs programmes too. Television has always been a low information medium; the amount of information to be found in most one-hour public affairs programmes can be reduced to about five minutes’ worth of reading material. The requisite number of JPMs for maximum audience appeal seems to be incompatible with a high level of information. The effect is quite striking when a high information programme comes on the air; you have to work so much harder than you’re accustomed to while watching television that your head actually becomes sore from the effort.

5) Despite its low information content, the high JPM form in which information is presented on television encourages the belief in the viewer that he or she knows much more about a subject than he or she actually does. Anyone who’s taught for any length of time knows how much more readily, and with how much more ease, today’s students talk about things of which they know little or nothing than was the case, say fifteen years ago. There are more genial fools than there used to be.

6) I haven’t seen any scientific evidence to this effect, but I would guess that people who watch a great deal of television find it more difficult to focus on the static printed page than those who don’t. Especially if the content of the page is at all demanding — i.e., low in the print equivalent of JPMs. People magazine and pornography, maybe; Kant no. And so a programme such as Sesame Street, which was designed to help prepare kids to read, probably does nothing of the kind. As George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications puts it, for almost all kids now television “precedes reading and, increasingly, pre-empts it.”

7) I would guess that people who watch a great deal of television (the average is now twenty-five hours a week) develop a physical and/or psychological need to absorb JPMs. I can’t see such people attempting to effect changes in the world around them. Their boredom thresholds won’t permit them to endure the tedium of committee meetings and everything else that’s involved in the democratic process. We may have an infinite capacity for rolling with the JPMs as we sit in front of our TV sets, but we have almost none for doing anything about the world outside our living rooms. A heavy dose of JPMs, then, is in the interest of the status quo.

The word “boredom” didn’t enter the English language until the mid-nineteenth century. And until recently, boredom (or ennui) remained an upper-middle-class affliction. Only such people had enough leisure to realize they were bored. The eight-hour day and television came in at roughly the same time. The former democratized boredom; the latter, it was hoped, would cure it. In fact, as seems increasingly clear, the cure has only been making things worse. It’s proving to be at least as dehumanizing as ten, twelve, and fourteen hour working days ever were.

— Saturday Night, July/August 1976

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