The End of the Story
How the TV Remote Killed Traditional Structure

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Telemedium: The Journal of Media Literacy on 1 September 1997

We call the stuff on television programming for a reason. No, television programmers are not programming television sets or evening schedules; they’re programming the viewers. Whether they are convincing us to buy a product, vote for a candidate, adopt an ideology, or simply confirm a moral platitude, the underlying reason for making television is to hold onto our attention and then sell us a bill of goods.

Since the time of the Bible and Aristotle through today’s over-determined three-act action movies, the best tool at the programmer’s disposal has been the story. But thanks to technologies like the remote, the joystick and the mouse, it just doesn’t work anymore.

The traditional story works by bringing the audience into a state of tension. The storyteller creates a character we like, and gets us to identify with the hero’s plight. Then the character is put into jeopardy of one sort or another. As the character moves up the incline plane towards crisis, the audience follows him vicariously, while taking on his anxiety as their own. Helplessly we follow him into danger, disease or divorce, and just when we can’t take any more tension without bursting, our hero finds a way out. He finds a moral, a product, an agenda, or a strategy that rescues him, and us his audience, from the awful anxiety.

The higher the level of tension the programmer has been able to create, the more preposterous the hero’s twist can get. Shirley Maclaine is only granted a minor insight in “Terms of Endearment” while Arnold Schwarzenegger has the luxury of breathing on Mars in “Total Recall.” But whatever solution the character finds, the audience must swallow it, too. Along with it, we swallow the sponsor or filmmaker’s agenda. This is what it means to “entertain”-literally “to hold within”- and it only works on a captive audience. In the old days of television, when a character would walk into danger and take the audience up into uncomfortable anxiety, it would have taken at least 50 calories of human effort for the viewer to walk up to his TV set and change the channel. The viewer was trapped. As long as the programmer didn’t raise the stakes too abruptly, the passive viewer would remain in his reclining lounge chair and go along for the ride.

The remote control changed all that.

With an expenditure of, perhaps, .0001 calories, the anxious viewer is liberated from tortuous imprisonment and free to watch another program. Although most well behaved adult viewers will soldier on through a story, kids raised with remotes in their hands have much less reverence for well-crafted story arcs, and zap away without a moment’s hesitation. Instead of watching one program, they skim through ten at a time. They don’t watch TV, they watch the television, guiding their own paths though the entirety of media rather than following the prescribed course of any one programmer.

No matter how much we complain about our kids’ short attention spans, their ability to disconnect from programming has released them from the hypnotic spell of even the best TV mesmerizers. The Nintendo joystick further empowers them while compounding the programmer’s dilemma. In the old days, the TV image was unchangeable. Gospel truth piped into the home from the top of some glass building. Today, kids have the experience of manipulating the image on the screen. This has fundamentally altered their perception of and reverence for the television image. Worse yet, the computer mouse and the Internet turn the video monitor into a doorway. No longer just an appliance for passive programming, the monitor is a portal to places and ideas. Kids with camcorders don’t even bother to watch programs. They just make their own.

The people I call “screenagers,” those raised with interactive devices in their media arsenals, are native in a mediaspace where even the best television producers are immigrants. They speak the language better, and see through our clumsy attempts to program them into submission. They never forget for a moment that they are watching media, and resent those of us who try to draw them in and sell them something. We mistake their ironic detachment for cultural apathy. It’s not. They do care; they’re just unwilling to take on some character’s anxiety and then swallow his agendas or buy his products.

Still, they do like TV, and there are ways for commercial programmers and television artists alike to appeal to their screenage sensibilities and viewing habits. In doing so, such programmers will be addressing a cultural agenda rather than foisting an agenda onto culture. The shows embraced by the screenage generation accept the inherent discontinuity of the television medium rather than trying to smooth it out.

For example, while we were all taught in film school how to bridge the jolt of an edit point, the screenager experiences each of these paved-over breaks as a lie. It’s discontinuity pretending to be continuous, and it comes across as false. Where adults are challenged by gaps, kids thrive on them. Just consider the difference between the experience of an adult skier and a child snowboarder descending a slope. The adult, with his long parallel skis, looks for the smoothest, most powdery path possible. The kid seeks out the bumps, rocks and patches of ice.

Programmers who think they’re hip have responded to this hunger for the chaotic by adding in superfluous jump-cuts and bumps of camera. Documentaries look real because they don’t try to convince us that there’s no camera. The reality of their production must be incorporated into the film because there’s no way around it when you only have one camera rolling at a time. But to fake the reality of a documentary by banging around the camera NYPD-style is a crude filmmaking technique that could only fool adults. The kids see right through it, and laugh out loud at this primitive imitation of low-budget documentarians. They don’t want old stories in new packages. They want new kinds of stories.

The extended evolution of storytelling I outline in my book, “Playing the Future,” describes the three main stages through which storytelling or any cultural medium develop. We start with a literal phase. For money, this was gold. It had actual, literal value. For Western religion, this was the Ten Commandments. Do this, don’t do that. The second stage is metaphor. The metaphor for gold was the gold certificate. Paper money represented a real value of gold. For religion, the metaphorical stage was Jesus and the parable. Jesus’s own life and his teaching stories, like the prostitute in the road about to be stoned, work as metaphors for the situations in our lives. If we can all identify with the character in the story, then the parable works. That’s why they’re called parables: a parabola is a curve that depicts the relationship of a single point to a whole line. As long as we’re in a simple, linear world, and all stand in a line, the point of a story will relate to us all. Stories require heroes we all relate to - superbeings, hierarchy and allegiance.

But our world is too chaotic for us all to stand in a line and respect one authority. We barely even go to rock concerts anymore; we go to rave dances, where there’s no sexy singer for everyone to face. The rave dance - a spiritual event- is a great example of the third cultural phase, what I call “recapitulation.” Rather than relating to someone else’s spiritual story, we create our own. The rave event recapitulates a spiritual truth. It IS spirituality. The monetary equivalent of recapitulation is the currency we now use in the United States called the “Federal Reserve Note.” It is cash, but it has no value in relation to some real metal. The dollar recapitulates the original function of money. It IS money.

How does television become recapitulatory? Check out “Beavis and Butthead.” The experience of those two little animated boys recapitulates the experience of the person watching MTV. It’s a screen within a screen. The viewer watches viewers watching television. Beavis and Butthead allow the screenager to maintain his distance from the programming. In fact, they encourage it. If a beautiful girl in an MTV video passes through the frame, a traditional viewer may be drawn into the trance. But before long Beavis will exclaim, “Nice hooters!” The viewers are alienated from the sexy image, and forced to keep their distance.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000” teaches an even more advanced lesson in media literacy. The object of the game is to make connections between different examples of media. Two robots and a man watch bad movies and make constant wisecracks. Their jokes always hinge on an obscure media reference. The delight of the show is making the connection between the seemingly distant references. It’s the same style of comedy that has kept “The Simpsons” alive for so long.

In recapitulated media, the audience’s moment of reward is shifted away from the hero’s daring escape, and onto the viewer’s own ability to orient himself in an increasingly complex mediaspace. Instead of experiencing vicarious relief from tension and absorbing the associated message, the screenager gets the joy of making momentary sense and associations in a chaotic culture. He gets his bearings.

Of course the problem for programmers is that this brand of media makes viewers more aware, not less. Just as surely as “video killed the radio star,” Beavis and Butthead killed the rock video.

Sponsors might not like us screenagers as much as the hypnotized audiences they enjoyed in the past. But they’ve already lost us.

They bred our ironic distance from the TV by abusing their privilege as the medium’s exclusive purveyors, and programming their audiences into a consumerist frenzy whose devastating cultural effects haven’t even fully played themselves out. Their only choice now is to provide us with television that addresses our anxiety in confronting a world as dauntingly chaotic as ours has become.

And, in a meta-ironic justice, those who choose to do so will get great ratings.