Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Prime Time Humpty Dumpty

Once upon a time, anyone could operate any TV set without instruction. There was an on/off switch and a dial with twelve positions (very early sets had thirteen, but channel 1 soon was dropped due to interference). There wasn’t much to figure out. Nowadays, if a friend (one, perhaps, who is busy in the kitchen) asks you to turn on CNN on his set, you face a challenge. Before you are multiple remotes for the TV, dvd player, video games, and stereo system; there are hundreds of channels arranged differently from your own cable or satellite service. If you push the wrong button you are finished. The complexity is a companion of greater choice, and evidence of the way popular culture has fragmented.

The radio has fragmented similarly, with satellite offering an amazing array of channels. There were niche radio stations almost from the beginning, but until quite recently there always were a few dominant stations in any market. NY's WABC AM, for example, played the Top 40 right into the 70s, and most households in the area tuned to it at least some of the time. There was no attempt at ABC to be thematic about the music. Whatever sold enough was aired. A typical playlist for 1969 was The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, The Supremes, Tammy Wynette, Dean Martin, The Doors, Barbra Streisand, and Jimi Hendrix. Such an eclectic mix today would be almost unthinkable.

I do think a certain common cultural grounding is a good thing; it is a sort of language for interacting not only with our fellows but with outsiders too. It is hard to begin to grasp another's culture without some understanding of one's own for comparison. However, this does not require monolithic mass popular entertainment. A liberal education in literature, history, science, and the arts will serve the purpose just fine. We don’t all need to watch the same TV shows.

Fragmentation offers new possibilities. Artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types no longer face a one-in-a-million shot at fame versus total obscurity. The internet allows bloggers and lyricists to find dedicated readers and listeners ranging from a few dozen to millions. They are unlimited by geography. Niche broadcasts and publications create niche stars. True enough, the Hollywood red carpet remains as unlikely a walk for most aspirers as ever, but, on a more modest scale, individuals can make their marks with an ease unseen before.

Surely this is a breath of fresh air, even if it is hard to get the TV to work.

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