No one knows precisely when it happened or why, but at some moment in the recent past what used to be known as “the masses” disappeared. In its place we have a brave new world of “niches.”

Listen to the media mavens, and they’ll tell you what “niche” they’re about to conquer. In tv, they don’t talk about the mass audience anymore, they’re buzzing about the Sci Fi Channel. Magazine publishers bring out hot books like Barbie Bazaar, aimed at collectors of Barbie dolls.

The buzzword of the 1990s seems to be “think small.” The expression “critical mass” will soon be changed to “critical niche.” And even now someone’s probably altering the inscription on the Statue of Liberty to read, “give me your huddled niches yearning to breathe free.”

Clearly this is the era of the big squeeze, not the grand design. In the newspaper business, profit margins of big city papers are down 20.2% since 1985 and readership is declining. Publishers are telling us that the future may lie with niche newspapers.

The magazine business which once gave us Life and Look now gets excited about The Illustrated Honeymooners, a niche magazine for fans of the old Jackie Gleason television show.

Stuck with a broad audience

In tv, especially, the era of nichification is at hand. A year ago I remember Robert Wright, president of NBC, complaining about the upstart Fox network. Fox was free to go after the niches, he said, while the senior networks still had a mandate to pursue the broad spectrum audience.

Well, times have changed. ABC just made a deal with MTV to develop a new form of programming for Saturday night. The target: that baby-boom niche of viewers age 25 to 45.

NBC pins its midseason hopes on “Dark Shadows,” a revival of a cult daytime soap from the 1960s. That’s a show for the upscale young woman niche which makes a romantic hero out of a voracious vampire. As for future suppliers, forget about the producers of the old mainstream shows – NBC has signed Ridley Scott, director of “Blade Runner,” and Pat Conroy, the novelist who wrote “Prince Of Tides.”

Even the heretical Fox channel seems to be aiming for narrower niches with shows like “In Living Color” – a brash stab at the young urban niche. Syndicators, too, are targeting a pricklier type of show for niche markets.

As for cable, there’ll be no more TNTs. Welcome to the era of courtroom channels, weather channels and pet care channels. Down the line we may even have a Corner Pharmacy Channel, where we can catch prescriptions being filled.

Movies once were the hallmark of mass marketing, but even here the future is uncertain. Fewer people are going to the movies these days. Actual ticket sales in 1990 dropped 7% from the year before despite record Christmas business. So-called “regular”

moviegoers saw 7.5 movies a year 20 years ago but only 5.1 last year. And though we keep hearing that the movie audience is growing somewhat more mature, the increase in ticket-buying by the 20s and 30s niches is too minuscule to get excited about.

Inevitably, the niche mavens are pondering the results of the past year. Macho flicks like “Days Of Thunder” and “Die Hard 2″ were disappointing compared with more romantic and emotional films like “Ghost” and “Pretty Woman.”

Could it be there’s actually a niche audience consisting of young women – a fact that would please all those unemployed female stars. And did the banner business of “Driving Miss Daisy” point up the potential of the “elderly-women-who-can-no-longer-drive” niche?

Where will all this nichification take us? One could argue that it’s gratifying to see a growing recognition of diversity. If the audience is viewed as a mosaic of divergent tastes rather than a clot of mindless morons, superior product may result.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. There was something downright convivial – even unifying – about an era when everyone would have their radios tuned to “Amos And Andy” and the Reader’s Digest would be in every mailbox. It was reassuring to be – well, one of the masses.

Which brings us to the more urgent question: Where is everybody? The real panic motivating those media mavens who are out there chasing niches is that much of the so-called “audience” has simply disappeared. What’s happened to all those people who no longer read newspapers or watch television or go to movies?

Could it possibly be that they’re too busy rushing from one job to the next? “Take a look at American lifestyles,” frets NBC’s Warren Littlefield. “Look at the people’s home life! Look at the amount of time they have for leisure!”

Well, maybe. But there’s also the darker possibility: Perhaps they’re simply bored to death by the output of our pop culture – sitting out there in droves, listening to white noise, staring at the wall. They may represent the ultimate market – the brain dead niche.

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