Why is TV so often stupid

TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.

That is from David Foster Wallace.  Here is the link, from Ben Casnocha.


Amazingly enough, TV has gotten a whole lot smarter. The intelligence of even dumb shows like Still Standing and Navy NCIS is light years ahead of the average show in the 70s. And the 70s boasted nothing like LOST, 24, The Wire, Battlestar Galatica, or The Sopranos.

- Josh


Certainly isn't that partially a function of having very many different cable channels and choices for entertainment? This statement might predict that the more channels, the more room there is for more intelligent television, because one can aim at a narrower slice of the population and still be successful.

Battlestar Galactica, and indeed the shows on HBO and such, all draw much, much smaller audiences than successful network TV. And network TV itself draws less than it used to.

"TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb."

-- Prurient, on the other hand...

I think John Thacker and Josh both make good points.

TV has no doubt gotten smarter and a lot of that can be attributed to cable and now new entertainment options (read: internet). Even some shows in the 80s are horrible if measured against today's standards (except Twin Peaks). Basically, with more cable channels and choices for entertainment, there is more competition for viewers which forces networks to step up to the plate and improve content. People are definitely watching less TV than they use to (see http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/15/us/15census.html) so programming needs to be more compelling to bring people in front of the tube. Even with viewership dropping though, people still watch a lot of TV...it's just spread around more than it used to be.

I too think Don wins comment of the day.

I doubt if elite tasts diverge that much. Look at music. People with crude tastes can argue forever over why death metal rules and rap sucks and vice-versa, but people with sophisticated tastes all know that Mozart's pretty good.

A simpler explanation is the bell curve -- there are just lots more people in the left three quarters of the bell curve than in the right quarter.

Nor is rap necessarily crude, either. There's certainly plenty of dreck out there, but there are plenty of intelligent rappers making important points, albeit perhaps not in the medium that Sailer prefers.

re: Thacker

Competition is no doubt part of it, but note that network TV itself has gotten a lot smarter. Nothing like LOST or 24 was around in the 70s, and even today's network dreck is no worse than the average show in the 70s, and far better than the worst.

- Josh.

Thanks for the insightful quote - anything that widens my field of thinking is most welcome.

There is a second enabling factor in the excellent television of recent years: the rise of DVR, DVD, and video on demand greatly expands the audience for shows that demand to be watched in their entirety out of just the group of people who have nothing better to do than be in front of a television at the same time every week. A related reason explains why the early crop of excellent shows were all on HBO--new episodes are played five or six times during their week, giving those without time-shifting technologies the chance to keep up. (This second insight courtesy of the commentary track on Season 1 of The Wire.)

In any case, the David Foster Wallace quote seems to come from an essay collection published in 1997, so it's not fair to assume he hasn't noticed how great TV has become (unlike those upthread who think the last good music was made by Mozart).

TV is stupid so I don't have one. It's been 10 years since I've sat down and watched a program, and I honestly can't tell where I'd have the time now to fit it in to my schedule.

Rap is stupid regardless of content. Disguising it as social commentary is the proverbial pig with lipstick on; it's still a pig.

I don't think all tv is stupid necessarily, but so much of it is, that I just chucked the whole thing.

What is that delightful quote? "Television is a called a medium because it is neither rare nor well done."

Perhaps the dynamics of the long tail and the drop in cost of video production equipment (a little reported and recent trend that may well make it only marginally more expensive to produce a "TV show" than a blog) will change this reality.

Something I've learned to my regret is that hour-long TV shows don't age well. You might think that you'll want to watch your current favorite hour-long drama again and again in future decades, but you won't. Hill Street Blues seemed great a quarter of a century ago, but I have no urge to watch it now, and the same is true for every other hour-long show I fell in love with since.

In contrast, half-hour comedies age reasonably well, keeping their appeal for a decade or two before their jokes become stale.

It is not true that people tend to be more alike in their prurient interests than in their more refined ones. A mere glance (purely for academic reasons, of course) at some of the exotic sexual interests you will find on the Web should be enough to prove that.

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