If all content is just data, what does that mean for quality television?

Why AT&T Killed Google Voice” by Andy Kessler in the Wall Street Journal is an insightful piece that’s been making the rounds lately. It’s worth reading. I’ll wait until you’re done.

The basic principle is that old media delivery companies–phone companies and cable TV–are trying as hard as they can to hold back universal fungibility of data pipes. TV and voice streams are just data, but cable and phone companies can charge a whole lot more for those services than they can for pushing the equivalent generic bits over the network.

I agree with most of the article, but I’m worried about the implications for TV. Today we are seeing a lot of really great television being made, subsidized by the station model that aggregates a wide array of content for a single station and then further aggregates a set of stations into a standard subscription package. So under this model, HBO can make a high-caliber show like The Wire–reported to be a money loser in terms of viewership and direct sales–and still be happy to make similar shows that build the network’s reputation. Cheaper shows make more immediate financial sense, but shows like The Wire are loss leaders for stations (or packages of stations).

The current digital crisis of the news business–disaggregation of unprofitable journalism and profitable miscellanea–is going to hit TV sooner or later. Disaggregation of TV content might make it harder to make great complex serial television (although we’d be paying less for it).

On the other hand, it might make it easier to mobilize audiences to finance really great projects. To Fox, Firefly‘s set of rabidly dedicated fans were no valuable than the same number of wishy-washy viewers of some lesser show (less so in fact, if they represented a demographic that brought lower advertising prices). There was no way to translate the intensity of the fans’ devotion into enough revenue to justify continuing the show. In a world of disaggregated TV, things might have turned out differently, with higher prices compensating for smaller audiences.

Then again, the movie industry relies by choice solely on audience size, with tickets to each movie the same price (varying by theater, but not by movie), and the blockbusters are rarely very good.

The scientist in TV dramas

This is a widely-acknowledged Golden Age of American television drama (led, of course, by cable shows, but with network fare that also has its high points). (I’m two discs in to Deadwood right now, which is the one show that is usually mentioned in the same sentence as The Wire in terms of really great shows.) One remarkable thing that’s happened recently, especially this season, is the flood of scientists as main characters. Several established shows have main characters who derive much of their identity, and personality, from being scientists: House, Bones, and (to some extent) Mohinder Suresh from Heroes. More than earlier shows in the same genres (medical dramas, forensic science dramas, superhero dramas), these shows and their characters explore the meanings of what it is to be a scientist in modern society.

But two new shows this season, Fringe and Eleventh Hour, are about science to an unprecedented extent (even including The X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but excluding CBC’s ReGenesis and the four-episode British version of Eleventh Hour, neither of which I’ve yet seen).

Fringe, and its main scientist character, showcase science-as-threat; Walter Bishop is Dr. Frankenstein for the era of Big Science. In his previous scientific life, Bishop had worked for the government and others on an endless array of “fringe science” research projects, mostly aimed in various ways at controlling the minds and bodies of people living and dead. Institutionalized for years, Bishop is now out and, working out of his old lab at Harvard, is helping the FBI investigate “The Pattern”, a big-business-linked series of weird and deadly happenings that are often the scientific monsters Bishop had helped to create. In Fringe, science is not just a threat to society, it is (inherently?) a threat to the moral fiber and mental health of the scientist. Bishop is an otherwise kindly old man whose broken personality is centered on a self-centeredness that is presented as, at least partly, a mental health issue, and alternately child-like naivety and (in the course of performing science) shocking callousness. Fringe is by no means a serious show, but it does articulate an interesting, and I think significant, interpretation of what it means in American culture to be a scientist.

If Fringe is in part inspired by the works of Michael Crichton, as creator J. J. Abrams claims, then Eleventh Hour is inspired by the other part of Michael Crichton’s works–that is, the part that deals with the moral and ethical dimensions of science as it is actually practiced, rather than the outlandish threats of science gone wild. The compelling main character, biophysicist Jacob Hood, also works for the FBI investigating science-related crimes and mysteries. But where Walter Bishop is pulled, out of dire necessity, from an asylum, Hood was recruited because (in addition to his brilliance) he was friends with someone who ended up in a position of power in the FBI. Most of the crimes involve acute threats to one or a few people, but there is no overarching conspiracy, no Pattern of misused science. Rather, the criminals are usually scientists doing realistic but scientifically/ethically/morally questionable research (often in commercial contexts), or the people who oppose what they do. Hood treads the line of genuine scientific enthusiasm (often accompanied by patronizing bemusement at his female FBI handler’s scientific ignorance), and ironic detachment and quiet disapproval of less-than-pure but not egregiously bad ways of doing science.

What does recent prominence of science and scientists tell us about American culture and the place of science in society? I don’t know, but I feel that it’s my scholarly responsibility to keep watching until I figure it out.