Audiences more polarized than ever

In another coalescence of politics and pop culture, the presidential campaign has started to mirror TV’s growing cultural divide, as contentious debate over John McCain’s running mate — self-proclaimed “hockey mom” Sarah Palin — is cast not just as small-town America vs. coastal elites, but reality TV vs. high-brow television.

The Palin pick comes as both the TV audience and political discourse have polarized — the former fueled by an increasingly fragmented audience, the latter magnified by loud and angry voices from talk radio, cable news and the Internet. Lacking on both fronts is much respect for conflicting views, as the conversation degenerates from “I like this and you like that” toward something more akin to “I like this, and you must be a complete moron — or an effete snob — for liking that.”

Liberals see the Alaska governor as an utterly cynical stab at wooing disgruntled women who supported Hillary Clinton, while simultaneously stroking Christian evangelicals. By contrast, many conservatives view efforts to belittle Palin as another sign of liberal condescension.

Almost unwittingly, though, this rift is being couched in TV terms. Critics have likened the Alaska governor’s come-from-nowhere story to reality TV and popcorn-munching Americans’ habit of glomming onto new (and often highly suspect) “stars.” Supporters, meanwhile, have seized on such derision as thinly veiled hostility toward what Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly likes to call “the folks.”

Conservative director David Zucker, for example, objected to characterizations of Palin as a choice catering to reality TV palates, huffing during an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “Actually, I’m a fan of reality TV shows, but I guess they’re something liberals look down on.”

In an equally inane broadside from the left, Kurt Sutter, creator of the new FX series “Sons of Anarchy,” blogged that his show’s opening-night ratings “got 9-11ed” by going up against Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention, while ridiculing Palin’s nomination for “playing to the dumbest common denominator.” (Not that anybody expects producers to possess much perspective about their programs, but even allowing that 37 million Americans watched Palin, that leaves another 260 million or so that managed to miss “Sons.” A vast right-wing conspiracy? Hardly.)

What’s happening here? Based on the way people currently talk about TV, it’s symbolic of a widening gap within the audience.

In one corner wearing blue trunks sit patrons of pay TV dramas and arthouse fare, prone to dismiss reality TV and CGI blockbusters as time-wasters for easily entertained rubes.

In the other (and naturally, red trunks) are those who thrill to popcorn fare, while rejecting anything with subtitles along with confoundingly dense episodic dramas like “The Wire” or “Lost” as requiring too much effort. Besides, enjoying television — the ultimate in mindless escapism — shouldn’t require a PhD. or spending 12 additional hours a week surfing the Internet, right?

Anecdotally, this schism is feeding budding resentment toward those on the viewing (or ideological) spectrum whose bad taste deflates our chances of getting the programs (or government) we want. Fans of HBO’s “Generation Kill,” CBS’ “Swingtown” or AMC’s “Mad Men” adore them, despite low ratings; indeed, the narrow fan bases for such shows somehow reinforces feelings of intellectual superiority vis-à-vis idiots falling for “Wipeout” or “Moment of Truth.”

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott recently advanced a similar theme contemplating the struggles of independent film, concluding the movies might be less at fault than the public. “The problem may be not that there are too many movies, but that there are too few of us,” he wrote — “us” meaning discriminating filmgoers.

Granted, there are many that happily straddle both worlds — consuming the media equivalent of fast food and fine cuisine, without apology.

Yet an interesting, still-evolving change nevertheless appears to be occurring. As with politics, part of the venom from various constituencies is now being directed not just at those in power but the stupidity or arrogance of fellow citizens, realizing that blame for networks canceling shows — or sustaining stupid ones — belongs partly to fools who don’t watch them (or do).

So much for the old touchy-feely mantra “I’m OK-You’re OK.” These days, it’s more like “My TV’s OK. Yours is why they call it the ‘The boob tube.'”

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