TV shows losing mass appeal

Bevy of genres, programming to blame

If TV was once an adhesive that helped hold a diverse society together, the signs keep coming that audience fragmentation has produced the modern media equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

Far from gauzy memories of co-workers mulling over the previous night’s episode of “Dallas” — or even the more recent obsession with Rachel’s hair on “Friends” — people are divided by so many choices they can barely speak to each other anymore.

On the recent pre-Emmy party circuit, it was fascinating to see how many conversations followed a pattern: Someone would mention how they “loved ‘Mad Men’ ” or were “hooked on ‘Damages,’ ” only to be met by vacant stares or mutterings like “I hear that’s good” from other TV business insiders.

Instead of one voice, what we have is a wide swath of small viewing communities, clinging to the programs they enjoy. Nothing’s wrong with that, except that many of these folks are completely delusional about the relative popularity of what they watch — fueled in part by ready access to scads of media specifically devoted to it, as well as a traditional media prone to making unsupportable pronouncements about “the public” in a desperate (if increasingly futile) attempt to connect with consumers.

Let’s begin with the Emmys. After all that pre-award hype, the ceremony itself landed with a thud, attracting 13 million viewers, one of the lowest on record. And no wonder, as the TV Academy bestowed key honors on programs like HBO’s “Extras” and NBC’s “30 Rock,” which, however deserving, have never been seen by most of the potential audience, eliminating much of a rooting interest.

On Emmy night, meanwhile, I received another example of how loony people have become, from a reader responding (belatedly, having apparently stumbled on the review online) to my negative appraisal of “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels.” “You do not accurately reflect the vast majority of viewers who have propelled this series to a No. 2 position” on A&E, he said.

For the record, while the Simmons show is a relative success by A&E’s standards, its 1.7 million viewers and No. 2 status on the cable channel still mean that 99.4% of U.S. TV viewers miss the show on a regular basis.

Still, he’s hardly alone. A radio reporter (granted, a field usually planted squarely in the dull end of the knife drawer) insisted that “The Sopranos” would win the Emmy because “America wants it,” which would certainly come as news to the 70% of Americans who don’t subscribe to HBO, much less watch the mob drama.

Last week, New York Times media columnist David Carr also examined the appetite for a coming wave of antiwar films, wondering, “Are audiences ready for the steady stream of movies and documentaries that bring a faraway war very close?” Yet whatever the receipts say, the few million souls who brave a fall movie opening can hardly serve as a convincing referendum for the public’s mindset.

The one development contributing to a modest consensus, oddly, is the very medium that has helped lead to this cacophony of voices: the Internet, that maddening tool rending traditional media asunder, what with all those online videos and blogs joining in the collective din of little beaks clamoring for attention.

Thanks to the Web, millions who missed Britney Spears’ train-wreck performance on MTV could access the clip in subsequent days, thus joining in the discussion. The same dynamic allows oddities like Sally Field’s bleeped Emmy acceptance speech to echo well beyond the first iteration, especially once voracious outlets like talkradio and cable news add them to their diet.

Keep this in mind during the next few weeks as TV premiere ratings roll in, and tea-leaf readers try to draw sweeping sociological inferences about U.S. society from whether 7 million, 10 million or a break-out-the-champagne haul of 13 million of the country’s 300 million residents watch a certain show. Before buying into any such diagnosis of what America wants, first contemplate your own viewing habits, then ask, “Which ‘America,’ exactly, would that be?”

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