Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Maybe Hulu Had It Right After All

I was thinking just the other day that television has been our pal for over 60 years. But, truth be told, television is probably more like our family—the kind of family that you don’t mind coming over and staying for a while. The box has become America’s most influential piece of furniture. We have made it the centerpiece in our homes and have given it a prominent place of stature in our family or living rooms.

So, I have a question for you. Have you ever wondered how television has impacted your life? For good or bad? I was reading some statistics that’s astonishing. By the time the average person graduates from high school he or she would have spent 18,000 hours watching television. That includes over 330,000 commercials. As adults, most of us will spend on the average over 4 hours a day watching TV. That’s a lot of time. Hey, if we’re spending that much time on any given activity, it has to have some type of impact. Right?

Maybe Hulu had it right after all. A couple of years ago, they ran a commercial campaign which launched and promoted their new website. It was a funny, entertaining and facetious commercial featuring Alec Baldwin. Hulu is a web-based site where you can view television programs online. If you missed it in real time, it gives you another opportunity to view your favorite show.

Baldwin start out at the Hollywood sign where he says, “They say television will rot your brains. That’s absurd. Like a banana will only soften the brain. To go all the way you need Hulu to turn it into mush.” It turns out that Baldwin is actually an alien, and he’s using Hulu to turn our brains into mush so they can be scooped out and consumed by the master alien race. The final tagline for the spot reads, “Hulu, an evil plot to destroy the world.”

Could Alec Baldwin be right? Perhaps, he really is an alien. Just kidding. No I don’t believe there is an evil plot to destroy Western civilization or undermine the morals and values of our youth. And, I’m certain there are no aliens pursuing some mass invasion. Hollywood executives do not gather on Monday morning to discuss their evil intentions of polluting our minds. They are not in cahoots with aliens. I guess it would be more comforting if that was the truth.

However, Alec Baldwin did get something right. Perhaps, television has softened our brains. Maybe it’s just easier for television to do the thinking for us. I’m sure you’re probably thinking right now, what’s the big deal. I’ve been watching television and I’m fine.

I’m just like you. After a hard day, I just want to relax. I just want to sit down, watch the tube and chill. No heavy lifting. All I want to do is to put it on cruise control. The TV networks understand this well. They want to give you what you want. The networks are in the business to make money. No evil plot.

That’s why we get programs like Hawaii Five-O. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of this show. But the format works great for television. It’s simple and doesn’t require you to do a whole lot of thinking. Like most scripted programming these days, it follows a predictable formula. Bad guys commit a crime. Our heroes, Five-O, springs into action. They catch a break, discover the plot and who and where the bad guys can be found. And after a chase or two or an explosion, the bad guys go down hard and are brought to justice. Same formula week in and week out. Just add some pretty pictures and some pretty people for eye candy, and you’re on your way to becoming a television producer.

Network executives have known for years that most people don’t want to watch complex television shows, such as Kings or Caprica. Both lasted only one season. They required the viewer be actively engaged and understand what is actually happening. Often it’s not about what we can see on the screen, but it’s more abstract and less defined. It’s what’s occurring in the minds of the characters or in the subtext. Remember, we just want to relax and not be challenged. Perhaps, Edward R.Murrow put it best. He understood the future of television and its potential to be used for both good and bad. He warned of the dangers long before others understood what was happening in our society. In 1958, he said that television is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us from the realities of life. By watching television, you would find evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation.

Murrow said that the American public has a built-in allergy to unpleasant and disturbing information. Murrow campaigned that television should reflect and offer a public discourse on matters of public policy and issues that impact society. But he believed because of the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies, programmers and sponsors, that the positive use of television would not become a reality. Television networks understood the human condition and what we really wanted to see. We were not interested in seeing the truth because that would be too unpleasant.

As Alec Baldwin says in the Hulu spot, television has indeed softened the brain. Perhaps that’s our legacy. Maybe today we can no longer think for ourselves. Whatever the box says is fine with us. No evil plot. We’re merely doing it to ourselves.

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