One of the most captivating programs on television right now is HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” about Chip and Joanna Gaines, a husband-and-wife team in Waco, Tex., who renovate houses and decorate them for clients.
I have no desire to live in Waco. I’m not in the market for a house. I wouldn’t know where to begin when renovating one. I don’t even particularly care for Joanna’s decorating style — too many oversize galvanized metal clocks hanging on the wall — but I find the show irresistible.
As in: I am physically unable to resist it.
Reality television has gotten that way: fine-tuned to elicit squirts of pleasing hormones from our pineal glands. We want to see whether the wall is load-bearing or not, if the cake will fit in the back of the truck, which wedding dress the bride will say yes to.
Still, what really bugs me about “unscripted” TV shows is how much recapitulation goes on. A good portion of every episode of “Fixer Upper” is devoted to telling viewers what they’re about to see and reminding them what they’ve just seen.
Is this, I wondered, a reflection of our shortened attention spans? Do we need constant reminders for our wandering minds? After all, a study conducted last year by Microsoft claimed that participants’ average attention span was a mere eight seconds, one second shorter than that of a goldfish. So I consulted a brain expert: J. Bruce Morton, associate professor at the University of Western Ontario and a researcher with the Brain and Mind Institute.
“My sense is that the producers are confronted with a viewership that isn’t watching a program from beginning to end in the way we used to 20 years ago,” Bruce said. He speculated that the narrative is refreshed constantly so channel surfers can figure out what’s going on.
Not exactly, said Jim Berger, chief executive of High Noon Entertainment, which makes “Fixer Upper,” along with such shows as “Cake Boss,” “Disaster House” and “Dr. Dee: Alaska Vet.”
Jim said these recapitulations have been used for at least the 20 years he’s been in the business. What’s typical now is a 15-second tease of what’s coming up next, then a 10-second recap after the commercial. This is useful, Jim said, because many of these shows are process shows — a house is built, a cake is baked, a car is restored — and producers want to remind viewers of the many steps involved.
“I would say producers have learned this craft over some decades now,” Jim said. “We’re not really playing keep-up. We’re trying to keep it strong, keep the writing tight, keep the people reminded of where we are.”
Jim said TV executives know such methods work. Ten years ago, High Noon produced Animal Planet’s first reality show, called “Emergency Vets.”
“It was very dramatic,” he said. “We experimented with ending an act like a scripted show. The music would flourish, and we would go to break. When we came out of the break it was boom, right back into the story. We tried that for a season, and I remember the network said it’s just not working. People are going elsewhere.”
What Jim and Bruce both agree on is that the TV viewing experience has changed dramatically. Bruce has heard his father talk about “Hockey Night in Canada,” a single televised game that back in the ’60s the family would gather for and watch from beginning to end.
“These days,” said Bruce, “there’s four games on at the same time, and you’re trying to take care of your kids, and you’re probably doing all this driving down the highway.”
Jim said that when he watches TV with his son, the 12-year-old is typically sitting on the couch watching videos on YouTube. “I’ll say, ‘Jake, the show’s back on.’ And he’ll say: ‘I know, Dad. I can hear it.’ ”
The information we get from the screens in our lives – whether they are programs on a television or apps on our phone – has become easier to absorb. TV producers and software developers have mastered the art of conveying information quickly. Hand a toddler an iPad and she knows what to do with it.
But is this is a good thing? I have enough of the Puritan in me to wonder whether puzzling over something for hours is preferable to letting it flow effortlessly into our brains. Bruce wasn’t buying that.
“I’m not so sure that if you have to scrutinize information for half an hour in order to make sense of it, that somehow you’ve arrived at a better understanding than if you’ve only scrutinized it for 30 seconds,” Bruce said.
He added: “There is such a premium on time now, in terms of media, that if you can’t make your point in 10 seconds, it’s too late.”
I would add that on TV, they make their point again and again (and again).
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.