Maddy: TV torture for the ADD generation
'This is awful. I can't stop watching'
Most grippingly of all, we have no idea what genre of story we are watching, so have no idea how or when it might end. To an extent, the same was true of the hit American drama Lost. But reality TV from the news department is always a one-off - there will be no sequel.
In view of this, newspapers desperately seek to juggle several potential plots at once. There is one in which the parents are villains, another in which the police are incompetent, and another in which Madeleine is still alive. If and when the story ends, it will make a lousy film, because by then the suspense of wondering what sort of story it is will have been lost.
What this amounts to is a form of S&M for the me-driven media generation. Stories that I consume when I like, or I participate in on my terms, or I create using my camera leave us feeling listless and empty after a while.
As the German philosopher Theodor Adorno observed of Hollywood in the 1940s, the entertainment industries deliver exactly what we expect them to, and thereby deliver us nothing at all. True culture, in Adorno's estimation, has to disappoint or frustrate us.
What the McCann drama demonstrates is a bizarre longing for stories that aren't easily consumable and are indifferent to what we expect of them. For sure, the characters are good looking - our desire for media S&M hasn't yet reached the heights of wanting to look at ugly people - but most of the time there is nothing going on at all.
Could this be a trend for the digital age? The assumption that the user is acquiring ever greater power over content production and consumption may well be true, but the question is whether we necessarily want all that power.
Some people find wildlife programmes therapeutic, precisely because they feel so irrelevant. Others revel in the glorious monotony of five day cricket matches.
Once the McCann frenzy dies down, many will find an empty space in their lives. At that point, a canny TV company should go looking for a news story, whose nature is unclear, and whose rhythm and conclusion are blissfully insulated from the demands of ego-driven consumers. ®
William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at Potlatch.