I've just finished watching The Virgin Show on Japanese TV. As the title implies, it takes one of the most intimate and vulnerable moments in a woman's life - that of losing her virginity, and brings into the living rooms of Japanese homes via the wonder - and the horror - of modern TV. It's very effective television - viewers get to feel almost as violated as the show's participants.
You could say that Japanese TV has always been avant-garde. But leaving it at that would be turning a blind eye to the fact that this is the direction TV all around the world is headed in. Taboo-breaking, more extreme, higher and higher levels of emotional stimuli - TV is in a race to offer the ultimate experience. Dramas are larger than life, thrillers keep you at the edge of your seat, and comedies make you laugh more often. The audience demands and the TV professionals polish the effectiveness of the methods designed to manipulate our mind to the ultimate level.
But how far can this go?
The basic assumption is that TV is like drugs. With time people will need more to experience the same joy. The question is how much more can we handle? If in old TV thrillers there were two or three twists per show - in TV today (shows like Flashforward) there are twists almost every five minutes, sometimes even less. Same goes for comedies (many more jokes per minute) and today's dramas too are loaded with peaks and layers of meanings. And of course - game shows and reality shows are upping the stakes and stretching our emotional responses to the maxs. Don't touch that dial! Really, the best is yet to come...
This is not a criticism but rather an attempt to analyze what will happen 20 years from now. Before dealing with the technological aspects I think the discussion should start with a neurological examination. How much more can the human mind tolerate? Can our brain analyze one joke per second? Will it be able to follow a plot line with a twist every 15 seconds? There is a limit to the abilities of the human brain and natural evolution will need much more time to fix that.
Then there's the inescapable question of morality. Here's a short list of real TV moments from recent years: Live autopsy, Live sex change operation, Reality show where the prize was a human baby, A competition where fathers had to answer questions and for each wrong answer to take a clothing item off their daughters' body. None of those shows are from "those crazies in the East". You could watch each and every one of them on American TV. These are just a few examples and not the most bizarre ones. The question is: if we scratch the bottom so hard now - what will we do in 20 years from now? Will we have any taboos left? The TV execs job to shock will become harder and harder. What can be next? Televised executions? Necrophilia? Pedophilia? Eventually, it's not an endless list.
The most visible change is Technology. No matter what technology the future will offer - it might be 3-D or 8-D. It might allow the viewer to take an active part in a movie classic or decide what will happen next. Eventually content will never really change - it is always a version of the story "a hero faces change". Technology will extend the experience to the maximum-ultimate level but there it will stop.
The natural instinct of TV execs has always been the same - if the audience is bored let's make everything bigger. Let's increase the excitement. If the prize in the old game show was 10,000 dollars let's make it a million. In 20 years it might become a 100 million but here is the catch - We won't really care anymore. The 10,000 dollars is a prize that can make you very happy for about a month. A million will change your life but a 100 million will do quite the same. One vs. 100 is exciting. One vs. Million might be even more exciting. But One vs. 100 Million has the same effect.
This race to get bigger is not limitless. I believe that we are getting close to a point where the audience will ask for something really new. A whole new ball game with a completely different viewing experience.
I won't be surprised if the direction is a different use of the TV device.
Today TV excites us in our gray bourgeois life by showing us people we can relate to doing amazing things or getting into extreme emotional situations.
In the world of the future, with city life getting more and more intense, you might use the TV to relax from all the excitement. The TV of the future might be the kind that is shown today on baby channels - slow, relaxing, narrative-free images. Instead of nasty Simon Cowell's remarks we'll watch animation of pink elephants crossing the screen; instead of jumping Jack Bauer we'll prefer wet paint drying on the wall.
No, it won't pump your blood pressure the way watching The Virgin Show does but the role of TV in our life is going to be completely different. This scenario sounds extreme, and maybe it is - but we need to open our mind to a whole new world where the old rules won't be relevant anymore.