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I Want My Mindless TV!

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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Last night, my son offered me a choice between two TV series on Hulu: “Parks and Recreation” or “Castle.” It had been a long day. I had cooked an overly complicated dinner for a weeknight. “Castle,” I said. “Parks and Rec is too intellectually demanding.”

“Castle,” in case you’ve never seen it, is a hybrid of detective drama and romantic comedy. The writing has never been brilliant, and it’s getting weaker. The show is set in New York, though location shots are done in LA and everybody on the show drives everywhere. The chemistry between the stars, Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion, was tolerable when their characters’ relationship was somewhat adversarial, but is nonexistent now that they’re married. It isn't a very good TV show.

Why does my family watch? The main reason we got started was Fillion, whom we knew from various Joss Whedon productions, mainly the short-lived and much-missed sci-fi Western “Firefly.” Being a “Firefly” fan is socially acceptable. This is the first time I’ve ever admitted to anyone outside my family that I on occasion watch “Castle.” And yet I chose it over the consistently charming and funny “Parks & Rec.”

“Castle” won out because it is easy. The main characters aren’t very complicated. The plot lines can be followed even if you step out of the room for a few minutes. Everything gets wrapped up in a single episode. The cognitive demands are low. “Parks & Rec” isn't “The Wire,” but it is a modern TV show, with multiple plot lines, in-jokes and lots of clever little bits that you miss if you don’t pay attention.

Steven Johnson described this transformation a few years ago in his book “Everything Bad Is Good for You.” Episodes of 1960s and 1970s series such as “Starsky and Hutch” and “Dragnet” tended to “follow one or two lead characters, adhere to a single dominant plot, and reach a decisive conclusion at the end of the episode.” Then, in Johnson’s telling, Steven Bochco came along in 1981 and changed everything. It wasn’t just that his show, “Hill Street Blues,” contained multiple plot lines that only resolved themselves over the course of many episodes (daytime soaps already had that); it also steered away from the obvious. Viewers had to puzzle out parts of the story for themselves.

The subtitle of Johnson’s book was “How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter,” so his point was that shows such as “The Sopranos” and “The West Wing” -- the high-cognitive-demand TV shows of 2003, when the book came out -- were a sign of cultural progress. And yes, sophisticated shows such as “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men” and “Orange is the New Black” now dominate the cultural discussion around TV. They win the awards, get the most attention in traditional and social media, and seem to elicit the most excitement from those trying to figure out TV's commercial future. If this is “the new golden age of television,” as people keep saying, it is the high-cognitive-demand shows that make it so.

Look at the Nielsen ratings, though, and the cognitive profile changes pretty dramatically. “Castle” was the 12th most watched show on TV during the 2013-2014 season, according to Nielsen’s “live plus 7” ratings (which, like it sounds, includes DVR viewings for a week after an episode airs). “Parks & Rec” didn’t crack the top 50. Of the nine scripted shows in the top 15 last season, eight (“Big Bang Theory,” “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles, “Blacklist,” “Person of Interest,” “Blue Bloods,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Castle”) seem to fall into my low-cognitive-demand category (“The Walking Dead” was the lone exception). By that I don’t mean these are necessarily dumb shows, just that once you’ve acquired a passing familiarity with the main characters you don’t have to work very hard to keep up. Think of “Law and Order” (or “Tatort,” if that’s your thing) as the archetype of the smart but low-cognitive-demand show.

The strong performance by low-cognitive-demand police procedurals appears to be continuing in this season’s weekly ratings, although those are often dominated by programs of the non-scripted variety -- sports, reality TV and talent contests. Sports is mostly low-cognitive-demand TV. If you’ve never seen an American football game before, it takes a lot of mental effort to follow what’s going on, and if you’re Jon Gruden watching tape to prepare for “Monday Night Football” your brain is doing a lot of work. But for most of us, most of the time, TV sports doesn't ask much of us.

Reality TV encompasses both high- and low-cognitive-demand offerings, although the emphasis is on the latter. Talent competitions -- “The Voice,” “Dancing With the Stars”-- resemble sports. Finally there’s professional wrestling, which claimed three of the top five slots on last week’s cable TV ratings. I really don’t know where that fits in my taxonomy -- it has elements of a sport, but it’s partially scripted, there are tons of characters to keep track of, and it’s all one big in-joke. Plus it’s guys in costumes jumping on each other.

Nielsen ratings are of course a flawed measure, now that so many people watch bits of television shows on their computers or stream whole ones onto their TVs from the Internet. Yet Netflix subscribers like their low-cognitive-demand TV, too. CBS research chief David Poltrack said last month that reruns of CBS’s “NCIS” netted almost as many viewing hours on the streaming service in 2014 as Netflix’s five original series (led by “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black”) combined.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Avoidance of cognitive demand is a well-established human tendency. To quote from a study published in 2010 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology:

In six behavioral experiments, participants chose freely between courses of action associated with different levels of demand for controlled information processing. Together, the results of these experiments revealed a bias in favor of the less demanding course of action. 

So why do we spend so much more time talking about the high-cognitive-demand TV shows? Is everybody just faking it to sound sophisticated? Well, no. When you look at rankings of shows that people pay for, the picture changes. Yes, an episode of the inevitable “NCIS” shows up pretty high on Apple’s current list of most-downloaded shows on iTunes, but when I last looked there was one “Parks and Rec” episode ahead of it and another not far behind. Last year’s most-downloaded TV shows were, in order, “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Downton Abbey, “Breaking Bad” and “Scandal.” That last one may be a guilty pleasure, but I’ve tried watching and it’s complicated. This is a high-cognitive demand list.

These shows require a much higher mental investment than an episode of “Castle,” but the payoff is much higher too. They are addictive. Fans binge-watch them. And therein lies a great divide in television business models.

The high-cognitive-demand series attract smaller initial audiences, but these audiences are committed enough to pay for them, even years after they initially air. Whatever happens to TV in the future, these kinds of shows will be able to make money. The low-cognitive-demand shows face a more uncertain future. People like to watch them, but are less likely to seek them out. They only make business sense if supported by advertising or as part of a bundle, or both. (Yes, there are exceptions in sports, but on the whole I think the rule holds.) TV advertising is in decline, and while the cable bundle is still gushing money it’s looking more and more vulnerable.

Based on Steven Johnson’s framework, this is great news. TV will increase its cognitive demands and the human race will progress. What on earth will our grandchildren do, though, when they come home from a hard day at work and all their brains can handle is watching a couple of cops solve a crime in less than an hour? Let's hope there will always be “Law and Order” reruns.

Update: I’ve heard from enough readers that “Person of Interest” can be tough to follow -- lots of complicated multi-episode arcs and such -- that I'm all for switching it over to the high-cognitive-demand category. The one episode I’ve seen seemed straightforward enough, but maybe I was missing a lot.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net