TV and the Flynn Effect

Ever notice that old tv shows and movies are boring?  Why should this be?  Were people more easily entertained thirty years ago?  Were they dumber?  Why yes, they were.

IQ test scores have been increasing over time, a fact known as the Flynn effect.  No one knows exactly why but some ascribe the effect to the greater cognitive demands of modern life.  Writing in the NYTimes Magazine Steven Johnson provides some interesting evidence from television.  He argues, I think correctly, that the plot structure of television dramas from a generation ago are much simpler than modern equivalents.   

The following graph illustrates a typical Starsky and Hutch episode:


The x axis indicates time and the y axis different plot-threads – the opening and closing points are the little "aha" that brings the story full circle with a little comedic twist.

Compare with the Sopranos in which plot-threads and characters interweave across many different episodes:


Is it any wonder that modern viewers are bored by older television?

Johnson wants to argue that the changes in television are part of what is causing the Flynn effect (he doesn’t say this explicitly in the NYTimes article for that you have to read his piece in the April Wired (not yet online) – very meta.)  Of course, it’s difficult to say what is cause and what is effect – probably both are involved.  (See Dickens and Flynn for more on that theme.)

I liked Johnson’s argument for a new system of tv ratings.  Don’t focus on the content focus on the complexity of the content’s presentation.

Instead of a show’s violent or tawdry content, instead of
wardrobe malfunctions or the F-word, the true test should be whether a
given show engages or sedates the mind. Is it a single thread strung
together with predictable punch lines every 30 seconds? Or does it map
a complex social network? Is your on-screen character running around
shooting everything in sight, or is she trying to solve problems and
manage resources? If your kids want to watch reality TV, encourage them
to watch ”Survivor” over ”Fear Factor.” If they want to watch a
mystery show, encourage ”24” over ”Law and Order.” If they want to
play a violent game, encourage Grand Theft Auto over Quake.

Addendum: Ted Frank points out that cable television has added to the phenomena, by fragmenting viewers it has allowed higher quality (less common denominator) content to filter through.


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