In trying to describe the difference between American and Canadian television, I came up with the crude but I think useful notion of ‘jolts per minute’ (JPMs). American programmes had far more.

CLEARLY, IT WAS A COUP for 90 Minutes Live [Peter Gzowski’s late evening TV show] to persuade Justice Thomas Berger to appear as a guest on the first of the programme’s nation-wide tryouts. But now that he was on, he was proving to be a problem. In response to a question from Peter Gzowski, Berger began talking quietly, and at length, about what the Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry meant, what the issues were, what his role was. He wasn’t telling most of us anything we didn’t already know, of course, but that was all right. All I wanted — indeed all the interview could possibly give us — was an impression of Berger the man.

Cartoon of Peter Gzowski by Martin Vaughan-James, 1977. Gzowski's thoughtful, longform radio interview style doomed his short-lived TV talk show “90 Minutes Live.” There weren’t enough “jolts per minute” for commercial television. The illustration was created for a “Saturday Night” television column by Morris Wolfe.

If this had been radio, Berger’s answers would probably have been all right with Gzowski too. But this was television and according to the rules of popular television, nothing was happening. Gzowski was getting uptight, and it was obvious he was getting signals from his producer to make something happen. So he awkwardly demanded that Berger tell us what conclusions he’d come to. But the adversarial approach to interviewing doesn’t suit Gzowski, and Berger, surprised by the change in Gzowski’s tone, and quite properly unwilling to discuss his conclusions while the hearings were still under way, retreated into a kind of defensive banality. Mercifully, the interview soon ended.

What the episode revealed was someone (Gzowski) working hard at learning to apply the First Law of Commercial Television. According to that law, the attention span of television viewers is short. Their boredom thresholds are low. If a sufficiently long time goes by on the screen without a verbal or physical assault on someone, or if the visual image doesn’t change often enough, or the sound isn’t loud enough, they will switch channels.

But if you can give them enough physical, verbal, visual and/or aural jolts per minute (JPMs), they won’t. JPMs get the adrenalin flowing and that results in a pleasurable feeling. That’s what American prime-time television programmes are all about — JPMs. That’s how they get the approximately 20-million viewers each show needs to survive. That’s why Canadian television programmes have so much trouble competing; they have too few JPMs.

Given the number of JPMs our viewing of American television has conditioned us to expect, it’s difficult for Canadian programmers to avoid trying to copy the form and content of American television. From that point of view, the treatment of Berger on 90 Minutes Live was understandable; after all, Gzowski was competing for an audience with American talk show hosts. From any other point of view, from that of simple decency to real audience need, his treatment of Berger was depressing. Somehow it seemed appropriate that the interview should be sandwiched between the appearances of a high-wire performer, Jay Cochrane, and a singer, Patsy Gallant, doing an English version of “Mon Pays.” The chorus of the English version endlessly repeated the line, “I’m a star in New York; I’m a star in L.A.”

The episode I’ve described on the Gzowski show is just one small example of what the pursuit of JPMs is doing to all television programming, Canadian — and American. It’s also doing some interesting things to the viewers themselves. Consider the following:

1) We’ve become so accustomed to a certain number of JPMs (our appetite for more and more seems insatiable) that it becomes increasingly difficult for us to watch anything slow-paced on television. My guess is that’s why CBS’s Beacon Hill [a serious dramatic programme] went off the air. It moved too slowly for people whose attention spans have been shaped by the verbal aggressiveness of All in the Family and the physical violence of Police Story. I think that’s why serious drama on CBC television has been getting such comparatively low “enjoyment indexes” and why fast-paced “journalistic” dramas do so much better. It’s not that serious plays on the CBC are poor. Some are as good as those produced during the “golden age” of TV drama. What’s changed in the ten to fifteen years since then is us; it’s more difficult to watch serious drama on TV. In a theatre, yes; on television, no.

2) In a sense, the content of programmes doesn’t matter, just the form — the number of JPMs. But as the writer, Ken Sobol, put it in a submission to the Ontario Royal Commission on Violence in the Communications Industry: “The problem with this technique is that with it, violence becomes a structural rather than a story element. It’s there automatically, before the story, not as a result of it. It becomes what we could call producer-imposed violence, existing purely as a means of giving the audience a quick jolt, in hopes of keeping it interested until the next jolt. It is violence directed not so much against a character in a story — we almost never know a victim well enough to care much about him or her — as violence directed against the nervous system of the viewer.”

3) There’s some speculation about what the effect will be on television programming now that it’s clear that eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old women are the prime purchasers in our economy and, therefore, the prime targets of television advertisers. My own guess is that nothing important will change. What will happen is that the emphasis will switch from the physical jolts men tend to prefer (sports and police programmes) to the verbal and emotional jolts women tend to prefer (game shows, sit-coms, and soap operas).

4) The more spectacular and superficial programmes are, the more people are interested in them. That’s true not only of police and talk shows but of news and public affairs programmes too. Television has always been a low information medium; the amount of information to be found in most one-hour public affairs programmes can be reduced to about five minutes’ worth of reading material. The requisite number of JPMs for maximum audience appeal seems to be incompatible with a high level of information. The effect is quite striking when a high information programme comes on the air; you have to work so much harder than you’re accustomed to while watching television that your head actually becomes sore from the effort.

5) Despite its low information content, the high JPM form in which information is presented on television encourages the belief in the viewer that he or she knows much more about a subject than he or she actually does. Anyone who’s taught for any length of time knows how much more readily, and with how much more ease, today’s students talk about things of which they know little or nothing than was the case, say fifteen years ago. There are more genial fools than there used to be.

6) I haven’t seen any scientific evidence to this effect, but I would guess that people who watch a great deal of television find it more difficult to focus on the static printed page than those who don’t. Especially if the content of the page is at all demanding — i.e., low in the print equivalent of JPMs. People magazine and pornography, maybe; Kant no. And so a programme such as Sesame Street, which was designed to help prepare kids to read, probably does nothing of the kind. As George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications puts it, for almost all kids now television “precedes reading and, increasingly, pre-empts it.”

7) I would guess that people who watch a great deal of television (the average is now twenty-five hours a week) develop a physical and/or psychological need to absorb JPMs. I can’t see such people attempting to effect changes in the world around them. Their boredom thresholds won’t permit them to endure the tedium of committee meetings and everything else that’s involved in the democratic process. We may have an infinite capacity for rolling with the JPMs as we sit in front of our TV sets, but we have almost none for doing anything about the world outside our living rooms. A heavy dose of JPMs, then, is in the interest of the status quo.

The word “boredom” didn’t enter the English language until the mid-nineteenth century. And until recently, boredom (or ennui) remained an upper-middle-class affliction. Only such people had enough leisure to realize they were bored. The eight-hour day and television came in at roughly the same time. The former democratized boredom; the latter, it was hoped, would cure it. In fact, as seems increasingly clear, the cure has only been making things worse. It’s proving to be at least as dehumanizing as ten, twelve, and fourteen hour working days ever were.

— Saturday Night, July/August 1976

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