The unreality of coffee cups on TV

A communications professor provides a reminder of the physical unreality of television:

There are moments when the “realism” of television breaks down: when framed photographs are poorly photoshopped, when video chats are unrealistically high-quality, and when driving scenes are staged using some very obvious rear projection. But for me the biggest threat to realism on television is something you may never have considered: the way that coffee cups that are supposedly full of coffee are plainly empty.

This video attempts to better understand both why this happens and why it bothers me as much as it does. My hope is it can help solve my problem, whether we define that problem as the emptiness of the cups (please support this cause on social media by using #EmptyCupAwards hashtag) or my own obsession with them.

This is just a small example of how television can warp our sense of reality. Even if we watch with a critical eye, television and film provides a complete universe that looks realistic (unless the presentation is emphasizing the lack of realism) but contains all sorts of weird phenomenon. In addition to the empty coffee cups, let me provide a few other examples from my own life:

  1. For a long time, I had a hard time believing that shootings and murders could happen in broad daylight. On the screen, they tend to happen when it is dark or stormy, situations that might be befitting of violent action.
  2. The full geographic scope of communities on television is often skewed – much sitcom actions takes place in a single house or in just a few locations. A show like The Simpsons set in Springfield tends to add parts to the city to suit its needs; Springfield includes these areas: “The city is divided into a number of districts, including Skid Row, the Lower East Side (a Jewish neighborhood), Springfield Heights, Bum Town, East Springfield, Recluse Ranch Estates, Junkieville, Pressboard Estates, South Street Squidport, Little Newark, Crackton, a Russian District, West Springfield, Tibet Town, Waverly Hills, Sprooklyn, Little Italy, and a gay district.”
  3. I have toured several sets in Hollywood and now I can spot them in various places. For example, the Warner Brothers lot has a city setup that is in all sorts of commercials and television shows. Or, we saw Wisteria Lane which could pop up in an Ace Hardware commercial (with some modifications).

The real issue here isn’t the missing coffee; it is that most of the time it is clear whether TV is presenting a more real or less real depiction yet almost all the time it is in small ways defying embodied life.

Making housing activism attractive on-screen

Fighting housing issues may be necessary but it is probably not the first topic viewers, producers, and networks think of for a good product. Until Show Me A Hero:

At its heart, Show Me a Hero is a wonk procedural, exploring all the seemingly impossible and impassable hurdles that policy has to traverse to become reality. But it’s brought to life by Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), the titular hero. In 1987, when the show begins, Nick, a former cop and lawyer, and current Springsteen superfan, is an eager and ambitious new member of the Yonkers City Council, which is already being roiled by a court ruling. A long-gestating lawsuit has finally found Yonkers, a working-class city just north of the New York City border, guilty of intentionally segregating its housing. The judge presiding over the case has ruled that 200 units of low-income housing must be built on the east, and white, side of the city. That is, more precisely, 200 units of housing, to be spread out over eight different locations, in the white part of a city of a couple hundred thousand people that has spent 40 years practicing systematic housing discrimination and segregation. That is, also, 200 units of housing greeted by white homeowners as an existential threat to their property values and way of life, visited upon them by liberal outsiders, to be fought viciously and rancorously, lest any of the “public housing people” come to live next door.

Nick is soon tapped to run against the Republican mayor in what is supposed to be a slam-dunk election for the incumbent but turns into an upset when the virulently anti-housing voters elect Nick simply because he is not the mayor, who has assented to the judge’s ruling in the case. Nick is happily swept into power by an incensed and racist cohort who expects Nick to fight the housing order, even though it is legal and will never be overturned, and disobeying it will bankrupt the city. Nick is not a simple, straightforward hero: He doesn’t come into office intent on doing the right thing, damn the consequences. He’s a cocky kid, tickled to be the county’s youngest big city mayor, who has to choose between being reasonable, responsible, and righteous or a recalcitrant, unrealistic bigot—when it is the latter choice that will let him keep his job. Nick does what is right. How he does this, and at what personal and professional expense, is the meat of Show Me a Hero, which, tellingly, gets its title from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” (A piece of advice: Don’t Wikipedia Nick Wasicsko if you want to avoid spoilers.)

Plenty of critics and viewers have echoed Newton Minnow’s claim that television will become a “vast wasteland” when it is bad. Yet, couldn’t a show like this be entertaining and provide a public good?

While I noted above that housing activism is an unlikely television topic, it is also an underdiscussed topic overall as many prefer to talk about the promises (and occasional perils, particularly after 2006) of the housing market without acknowledging the influence of residential segregation and the need for interventions to make affordable housing possible as well as to break down persistent clusters by race and class.

TV show uses McMansions to show off differing personalities

The TV show The Last Man on Earth features McMansions intended to quickly display the personalities of different characters:

“We wanted to play off the fact that we’re all worried about ‘bigger is better.’ With these McMansions, it’s kind of like, ‘Look what we’ve become,’ ” Hill says.

As with any good comedy, though, the main function of the McMansions is to reflect the personalities of the characters who live in them. The motley crew of pandemic survivors who unite in Tucson have little else in common, and the homes they adopt embody this.

“For Phil, we wanted something a little more masculine to kind of embrace the earth tones of the Tucson area,” Hill says. “Phil’s environment, obviously after the first few months he’s there, goes from this pristine environment with the artifacts he brings from all over the country to this completely slovenly layer upon layer of bottles and cans.”

Forte finds his foil in Kristen Schaal’s character, Carol, whose spotless home looks like a living Pinterest board. “For Carol, we wanted it to be a little bit more formal, a little bit colder,” Hill says. “She brings her own layer of craftiness.”

This works on two levels. First, television – particularly comedies – have limited time to develop characters. Thus, they have to use some shorthand to quickly convey character traits to viewers. Big differences in houses could imply quite a bit. Second, Americans generally have believed that their homes reflect them. Poorly maintained lawn and messy house? Garish decorations? Immaculate style? Lots of rooms but not as much furniture? Americans also think homeowners are more invested in their properties and communities than renters. Additionally, homes help denote status in their size, upkeep, and furnishings. Overall, McMansion owners are likely viewed poorly because their homes are designed poorly, try too hard to impress, and may be viewed as wasteful while homeownership gives them back some points. But, if you are truly the last people on earth in Tucson, Arizona, perhaps you have to differentiate yourself in some way…

See this earlier post about the use of McMansions on The Last Man on Earth.

College courses tackle The Simpsons

Continuing the trend of the media showing interest in college students getting credit for classes involving pop culture, here is a brief overview of college courses tackling The Simpsons:

He currently teaches a course about the Broadway theater and how “The Simpsons” have embraced various musicals and plays. Next semester, he shifts to an online literature course titled “The D’oh of Homer” that includes readings from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — all referenced in “Simpsons” episodes…

According to the SUNY Oswego website, “Sociology of ‘The Simpsons'” is still an accredited course at the Central New York school. Sociology professor Dr. Tim Delaney published a book in 2008, “Simpsonology: There’s a Little Bit of Springfield in All of Us.”…

Jean acknowledges a theme in many episodes is the comparison of the C. Montgomery Burns character — the miserly owner of Springfield’s nuclear power plant — to the lead character in the movie “Citizen Kane,” Charles Foster Kane…

“They need to reach students however they can. And using ‘The Simpsons’ to grab their attention, I think, is brilliant,” she says. “Fighting against pop culture isn’t going to do anyone any good.”

For those skeptical of such classes, here is my brief defense of using The Simpsons:

1. It is the longest-running American sitcom. That alone means it has a unique place among television shows. It has never been the most popular show but it clearly has staying power.

2. Television may seem irrelevant to the college classroom but given that the average American adult watches 5 or so hours a day (the figures do vary by age), it is a powerful force.

3. The Simpsons has a particular way of critiquing many aspects of American society. Perhaps it is the writers, perhaps it is the animated format that allows for a different kind of humor. I recently used the episode “Lisa the Skeptic” (Season 9 Episode 8) in class to illustrate the debate between religion and science. This episode lays out the two sides and then in the end skewers both by suggesting the real issue is rampant consumerism.

TV increasingly for the old, Internet for the young

A new analysis suggests the population of TV watchers is aging faster than the US and Internet users tend to be younger:

The median age of a broadcast or cable television viewer during the 2013-2014 TV season was 44.4 years old, a 6 percent increase in age from four years earlier. Audiences for the major broadcast network shows are much older and aging even faster, with a median age of 53.9 years old, up 7 percent from four years ago.

These television viewers are aging faster than the U.S. population, Nathanson points out. The median age in the U.S. was 37.2, according to the U.S. Census, a figure that increased 1.9 percent over a decade. So to put that in context of television viewing, he said TV audiences aged 5 percent faster than the average American…

For younger audiences, control over when and where they watch has driven the trend away from traditional television. Live television viewing was down 13 percent for all ages except for viewers 55 years and older, who are steadily watching their shows at their scheduled broadcast time.

But, what about watching TV on the Internet? Here is more about watching different kinds of videos online:

Teens said they identify more with YouTube celebrities such as comedians Ryan Higa and Smosh, a “Saturday Night Live”-style singing, rapping duo, more than Hollywood A-listers Jennifer Lawrence and Seth Rogen, according to a July poll commissioned by Variety Magazine.

And like YouTube, Vine, which is owned by Twitter and has 40 million registered users, is producing celebrities who are getting increasingly picked up by mainstream media.

Perhaps not too surprising. Yet, it may lead to some interesting changes with both mediums. TV has traditionally tried to chase younger audiences, people that are impressionable and have spend a lot of disposable income. How much should TV chase younger viewers, particularly as the Baby Boomers, people used to TV and spending, age? On the other side, young Internet users do grow up at some point. Can sites like Facebook and YouTube continue to appeal to aging users as well as younger users who want new things?

At the least, this suggests moving images are not going away anytime soon, even if the delivery mode changes.

Stat of the day: cable companies now actually have more Internet customers

New figures show cable companies now have more Internet customers than TV customers:

For the first time, the number of broadband subscribers with the major U.S. cable companies exceeded the number of cable subscribers, the Leichtman Research Group reported today. Among other things, these figures suggest the industry is now misnamed. Evidently these are broadband companies that offer cable on the side.

To be sure, the difference is minimal: 49,915,000 broadband subscribers versus 49,910,000 cable subscribers. But even assuming a huge overlap in those numbers from customers who have both, the primacy of broadband demonstrates a shift in consumer priorities. Nearly all the major cable companies added broadband subscribers over the past quarter, for a total of nearly 380,000 new signups. Cable subscribers don’t have to worry about TV as they know it going away any time soon. But cable is on its way to becoming secondary, the “nice to have” compared to the necessity of having broadband access…

The better margins boil down to the fact that broadband is purely about access, while cable is about content. The crux of the cable side of the cable business is hatching deals with the makers of sports, news, and entertainment so there’s something to send through the box. And the costs can be steep. ESPN, the most pricey by far, tops $5 per subscriber per month.

The temptation with these numbers is to see a decline in television but I don’t think this is necessarily the case. TV has had remarkable staying power over the decades (it doesn’t hurt that the technology keeps getting better with better picture and sound as well as lots more channels) and Americans continue to watch a lot of it, on average. The Internet offers different possibilities compared to TV: access to more specific information, interactions with other Internet users, and a less passive overall experience. They also can be consumed together, presenting intriguing potential for interactions between the two.

Perhaps the bigger story here are the larger profit margins with the Internet…

Update on the Internet versus other forms of media

Derek Thompson provides an update on how people use the Internet in comparison to television and other media:

Eyes move faster than ads. It was true for TV: In 1941, when the first television ads appeared with local baseball games, radio and print dominated the media advertising market. Now it’s true for mobile, which is practically a glass appendage attached to working Americans and commands more attention than radio and print combined, even though it only commands 1/20th of US ad spending. Google and Facebook own the future of mobile advertising, for now. But the present of mobile monetization isn’t ads. It’s apps…The second chart that really struck me from the Meeker report shows the growth of the mobile biz since 2008, which has exploded from $2 billion to $38 billion. I never would have guessed that two-thirds of the mobile business comes from paid apps rather than advertising. It’s an interesting reversal from the desktop ecosystem, where just about every Internet property I use is free and supported with third-party advertising. When you combine this graph (basically: Mobile is an app industry, with a side of ads) and the previous graph (basically: The future of attention is mobile), you begin to see just how important it is for media companies to promote high-quality apps for their stuff…

If you’re wondering why Facebook spent a bajillion dollars on WhatsApp and Instagram (and offered more bajillions to Snapchat), just look at this graph for a split-second. The Internet as you know is essentially a series of tubes optimized for facilitating the distribution of photos. Although Facebook’s share of that photo market isn’t growing, WhatsApp and Snapchat have exploded. This feeds into a larger point that Meeker makes in the presentation, which is that the mobile Internet has been a boon for discrete, simple functions. WhatsApp is simple. Snapchat is simple. Timelines are simple. Simple actions and interfaces are thriving on mobile, more than services like Facebook which offer a more complex suite of functions…

– British people watch the most TV.
– The Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russians spend the most time on desktop computers.
– Nigeria is the most addicted to their smartphones.
– Nobody loves tablets more than the Philippines and Indonesia.

Some fascinating info. The quick rise of the mobile device is truly remarkable but it is worth noting that it hasn’t supplanted television and other media just yet. In fact, perhaps part of its appeal is that it is able to co-opt other forms of media: print, TV, and radio can all migrate to a single smartphone screen.