National Public Radio seems to just be noticing that media culture comes in facets, made to order for the end user. The argument made by NPR journalist Elizabeth Blair yesterday is that the “common experience” once shared by goobjillions of viewers tuning in to one channel find out Who Shot J.R. is vanishing, replaced by goobjillions of viewer-specific channels. “Americans live in a culture of multiple cultures no longer broken down simply by ethnicity, religion or age,” goes their thesis. I’m here to retort: ‘Twas ever thus.
Cultures, when they grow large enough, naturally tend toward fragmentation. We split into classes, castes, or philosophical schools. Once these strata exist, they cut their own channels of communication. The idea that Fox News is revolutionary for speaking to conservatives ignores the fact that conservatives of all stripes have had their own channels (The National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The 700 Club) for decades, as have liberals. At the dawn of American mass communications, newspapers were chiefly organs of political parties. I grew up reading the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, founded in 1852. Hell, in northern Illinois, there’s still a paper called the Quincy Herald-Whig. The only thing different about the so-called media fragmentation of this decade is that technology (as pointed out in Blair’s report by Burrell Communications leader Fay Ferguson) allows media cultures to fragment at their own pace, which today is set by the viewer in practically real time.
Blair’s report (part of an ongoing series) also assumes that there is no permeability to the strata we’ve created, pointing to the lack of “water cooler moments” that were once shared, we are told, in the heyday of “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” Wrong — we still have those. They just happen on YouTube.
In the NPR piece, Alyssa Rosenberg points to cultural events that still have mass impact, like the death of Michael Jackson or the final Harry Potter book. That’s nice. What no one seems to have considered is that both those phenomena were born well before the 21st-century fracture that these cultural critics are crying about. Harry Potter is one year older than Google. Michael Jackson sang Motown. If NPR’s argument holds true, their departures could be viewed as funeral bells for the pre-Google age; we may never see their like again. Or at least, we may never see it, all of us, together, at the same time, 8 PM Eastern/7 Central. Unless it’s on YouTube.
And believe me, the fact that Two And a Half Men has fifty percent of the viewers The Cosby Show had is cause for both great celebration and jagged, terrified weeping.