TV was once a provider of common experience
I’m a pop-culture history buff, so Karon recently recorded a documentary for me about what went on behind the scenes when they made “The Brady Bunch.”
I was never a big fan of the show, although I probably watched it occasionally. And it’s one of those things that even if you weren’t a fan, it’s part of the cultural background for people of a certain age (late Baby Boomers).
The documentary was interesting, if occasionally a bit trashy, but it got me thinking about television, how it’s changed and what those changes have meant.
Here comes the old man part: People my age and a bit younger grew up in the days of the three major networks. If there was nothing you wanted to watch on CBS, NBC or ABC, well, there was nothing you wanted to watch. (PBS had a fairly limited audience, because it was known as “educational TV.”)
But while we all may have had fewer choices, television back in the day was sort of a unifying force in this country. With fewer choices, more people watched the same shows, and talked about the same shows at work or school the next day.
And sometimes, memories of one’s family revolve around those choices. Once a week in my family, we’d watch “The Ed Sullivan Show.” My sisters would make popcorn and we’d entertain ourselves with the latest rock act, comedians and guys spinning plates to “The Saber Dance.” To this day, when I hear “The Saber Dance,” I immediately picture a guy spinning plates.
And my Dad and I never missed “Get Smart.” I remember one time, when I’d been sent to my room for some transgression, he sprung me so we could watch it together.
Karon, who came from a much stricter, more religious household, watched “The Wonderful World of Disney” while we were watching the comedians and plate-spinners.
When it came to news, there were two things that were vastly different: Everybody pretty much got the same kind, and it was about the same things. Getting the news was a much more communal experience. I vividly remember watching the first moon landing, along with most of the planet. Those of us who remember that night remember it in the same blurry black-and-white images.
Of course, when cable television came about, the change was about as radical as you can get.
Some things remained the same, but there was just more. In 1992, Bruce Springsteen released a song called “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On),” so even with expanded offerings there were times when there wasn’t much worth watching. The only difference is that the number of channels Springsteen mentioned sounds almost quaint today, when you have 570 channels with nothin’ on.
As cable developed, it sliced and diced its audience. New cable channels sprung up for every niche audience. Shopping networks popped up early, and some of the most popular shows now are on networks entirely devoted to home improvement. I’ve never really understood the entertainment value of the latter, since to me, they’re about as entertaining as a baseball game between two teams of coma patients.
What’s sort of interesting about all those networks is that even if they’re aimed at people unlike you, you can occasionally stumble across something weirdly entertaining. I once found a dance show on the RFDTV network, which apparently has a somewhat elderly rural demographic. The show was so relentlessly and delightfully corny that it made “The Lawrence Welk Show” look like a Rolling Stones concert.
So we’re all part of a fragmented audience now, tuning into only those shows that appeal to us personally. We’re in little boxes, each of us sitting in front of another box (or flat screen, as the case may be).
But it’s robbed us of that communal experience the big three networks once provided. If I see a show I find interesting, and want to tell somebody about it, first I have to ask them if they watch or subscribe to a certain cable network. If they do, we can bond over it, but if they don’t, all I can do is describe what they’re missing.
Of course, that’s become a problem when it comes to news. You now can watch whatever news fits your own position and confirmation bias is rampant. You often hear about how split this country is, and how people live in their own separate fact universes, and that’s largely because every cable news channel appeals to a different universe.
And the news networks have trouble filling time with what used to be considered news. If you tune into a news network, unless it’s early in the hour you’re more likely to see, rather than an account of the day’s happenings, a program centered around people gassing on about what those happenings mean.
It’s not like things can ever go back to the way it was. Cable television isn’t going away, unless it’s killed by shows streamed on the internet, which appeals to the same niche audiences. The old big three networks probably will be around for a while, but they’re relics of an age when conditions were vastly different.
That means that the communal experience TV once provided isn’t going to come back, either. We’ll never again have a common video hearth to gather around. And we won’t share an important common cultural experience. It’s not like “The Brady Bunch” was Shakespeare, but at least it gave us something to talk about.
Maybe that’s one reason everybody seems to find it so hard to get along these days. We can’t even agree on what to watch, much less how to solve our very real problems.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org