Lost on the web

That ABC will release Lost episodes on the web for download has been getting a lot of coverage and has been hailed as a brand new era in media and the ultimate maturation of Web synergies and so on. I’m not sure that this is much of a bid deal at this point. The audience who relies on the Internet for entertainment seems different in nature than the group who counts on the cable box. In BusinessWeek columnist Stephen Wildstrom argues that until searching for shows becomes more mainstream, and until you can make your computer function like a souped-up cable box, Net TV won’t make much inroads, and that seems right to me. TV watching is rarely something that happens as a result of the active curiosity that drives one to seek out content on the Internet. Rather it is a result of the passive indifference to specifics and the vague desire to hear people talking and to see pretty people doing stuff. The Internet provides too many choices, even now, of things to watch that it frustrates the goal of much TV watching, which is not to think, to be permitted not to think and indulge oneself in a soporific stretch of brainlessness.

That’s why I’m skeptical of Tyler Cowen’s analysis

that on-demand programming will make TV smarter. His logic is that episodes won’t need to be redundant with previous ones since those earlier shows wil always be available for people to catch up. And presumably the ability to play through shows again will permit a greater complexity that rewards the diligent attention of viewers and engages them in a quest to figure out what the hell is going on. Perhaps the niche shows Cowen mentions — Lost, Battlestar Galactica (which is really good) — will better cater to their audiences this way, but many TV shows are about the flight from complexity. I guess I’m not a beleiver in the argument Steven Johnson put out last year that pop culture makes you smarter — if only. Johnson assumes that since the potential is there for complex analytical culture, it is being widely realized by a thoughtful, analytical audience. But complex culture can be comsumed in a simple-minded way — you can watch Fellini films just to ogle the women. The amount of concentration a viewer brings will ultimately determine how intellectual an experience one has with television — you can do deep Lacanian analysis of Teletubbies and be far more intellectually engaged then you would be watching Johnson’s favorite example, 24, and its intricate plots.

If the programming choices are truly left in the hands of individual consumers, I suspect many would be content to watch the same few things over and over again, which reduces the pressure of watching while providing the comfort of familiarity. The challenge for the culture industry in an n-demand world is to keep a populace as addicted to novelty as they are when their programming is controlled centrally.