Total Immersion

June 29, 2012

The people who produce all forms of media are always looking for new ways to suck in audiences, possibly because the old line attributed to P.T. Barnum about there being a sucker born every minute was right, but also because it’s hard to keep audiences when the overwhelming amount of what’s produced sucks. Back during the Great Depression, for instance, movie theaters gave away free dishes, and then in the fifties they tried things like movies in 3-D, which was so successful it took them nearly sixty years to get around to mass marketing 3-D movies again, although most of us still aren’t buying it.

Recently I heard about show that’s currently only being produced on the web, but the idea is that you’ll call a phone number and listen in while footage plays on the screen. In other words it’s sort of like a drive-in movie–and we all know how successful those are–except that instead of being able to hang a little speaker on your car window you’ll have to keep your ear pressed to your phone. And the idea is that it will also interact with your Facebook, Twitter, or other social media account and whatever else you’ve been browsing on the web to create, in the words of one reporter, an "immersive experience". The first series being produced is, naturally enough, a cop show, because every other show on television these days is either about cops or doctors. And I don’t have a problem with that–hey, I even like some of those shows about doctors who moonlight as cops and who have a werewolf for a partner–but I do hope they’ll avoid one of the dumbest recurring features of most cop shows. You’ll mainly see this on a show like Law & Order: Misdemeanors, where a group of rough-talking, soft-hearted plainclothes cops devote their entire lives to using DNA evidence to stop jaywalking. The cops will be in their office in the precinct and walking out to go to a crime scene. One of them will say something like, "Hey, did you hear about Bruce?" And then when they get to the crime scene and are getting out of the car the same cop will say, "He’s finally getting help for his gambling addiction."

I’m not a cop and I don’t live in New York so I have no idea how long it takes them to get from their office to the car, or how long most of these car trips take, but I still can’t understand why they have to put an entire conversation on hold while they’re en route to a crime scene. Especially when they’re riding in the same car, which must make for some really strange silences. Or possibly the other cop sits in the car screaming, "What? What about Bruce? Are you going to tell me? Say something!" Anyway, it doesn’t matter what these "immersive" shows are about. Do we really need or even want a show that simultaneously interacts with every electronic device in our homes–computer, television set, telephone, microwave, toaster–in an attempt to make us watch? If this is the future of television I’m worried that some night I might decide to read a book only to have television producers come into my home and strap me into a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. I’ve already been in some focus groups that were like that, but that’s another story.

I understand that people who produce media want as much of our attention as they can possibly get, but is this really the way to do it? Whatever happened to those virtual reality helmets that were the next big thing in entertainment? I’m not sure, although they seem to have been as popular as drive-in movies. And here’s something else to consider: there are movies, TV shows, books, and even pieces of music that, for me, are already immersive experiences. There are works of art–and I do consider some movies and TV shows works of art–that I enjoy so much that I willingly lose myself in them, if only for a short time. Yes, it takes some concentration on my part, and, yes, the phone might ring or something else might interrupt the experience, but that’s life. That’s reality. If a friend or family member should need help and try to reach me I’d rather not be tying up the phone or the computer or the toaster with some show. Something that tries to prevent the outside world from interfering with those sometimes annoying, sometimes necessary interruptions isn’t entertainment. It’s more like induced psychosis. And if they really have to resort to this gimmick to hold our attention maybe the real problem is the shows they’re making aren’t good enough to make us care what happened to Bruce.

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