How involved are 'the American people' with the tube?

In one of “The Daily Show’s” trademark montages, various politicians were shown presuming to speak for “the American people” — as in, “The American people want…” this or that, ignoring the country’s diversity of opinion.

Yet such proclamations — however myopic and self-serving — are hardly confined to politics. They have crept into our cultural discourse as well, despite a level of audience fragmentation that means “the American people” seldom widely agree on anything.

“The nation is once again transfixed by ‘Mad Men,'” began a New York Times Sunday essay, apparently oblivious to the fact 99% of the nation doesn’t watch the show. The same day, a journalist for a sci-fi magazine asked ABC how it could so abruptly remove “Happy Town,” noting that her readers “erupted in howls of fury” over the show’s disappearance.

The Times is seldom cited in the same breath with fan magazines, but both episodes speak to a parochialism that has taken hold, where politicians, journalists and pundits blithely label ideas and entertainment as being of widespread interest or concern. The assumption seems to be — despite all the evidence to the contrary — that if I think something’s important, everybody else must, too.

Just as it wouldn’t occur to Times arts editors (to whom “Mad Men” is doubtless must-TiVo TV) to question referring to the modestly rated show as a “phenomenal success,” it’s not uncommon for fans and dedicated sites to falsely believe wide swaths of the population share their particular obsessions.

Now, it probably is bad customer service for ABC to alienate the few million people watching “Happy Town;” still, planning even a diluted broadcast network schedule around that tiny subset of the audience would be akin to Macy’s predicating purchasing decisions on those who shop for gloves. It would be nice to keep cold-fingered types happy, but…

Of course, “Mad Men” isn’t the only program whose perceived impact echoes far beyond its audience size. When Bill O’Reilly recently boasted in a broadside at MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that he and Fox News Channel “kick your network’s butt every single night, madam,” Maddow shot back with a rare moment of public candor about cable-news viewership.

O’Reilly might register higher ratings, she conceded, but in terms of key demographics, Maddow pointed out that both attract fewer people than programs like “Deadliest Catch,” “WWE” wrestling and “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

As good as it must have felt to deflate O’Reilly’s trademark swagger, by highlighting the puniness of their respective reach, Maddow’s barbed retort was the equivalent of a murder-suicide — basically saying, “Why the fuss about ratings, dude? In the bigger scheme of things, not that many people watch either of us.”

From that perspective, it’s no wonder reporters assembled at the ongoing TV Critics Assn. tour sounded positively desperate Monday for any crumbs Fox could provide regarding “American Idol’s” judging makeover. In this day and age, it’s rare to be afforded the opportunity to write about a show that one can realistically assume most readers have even heard of.

Indeed, based on my limited TCA attendance this go-round, the evolving face of journalism is subtly altering the conversation at the semiannual gathering. In essence, there’s less coherence to the questioning, now that people representing specific, narrower constituencies — celebrity gossip, fanboys, trades or their equivalent, freelancers — have filled seats once occupied by the dwindling ranks of those dispatched by broad-based consumer newspapers.

As NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker told Wall Street Journal in an interview this week, content is “much more fragmented and lives in many different places than ever before.” Inevitably, that means the discussion about and coverage devoted to that content has changed as well.

Much of the audience has been subdivided into its own hermetically sealed entertainment bubbles, sometimes with scant sense as to how little company they have within them. They can sit “transfixed,” or unleash “howls of fury,” in front of the TV or laptop, while sharing the experience with like-minded crowds — making a statement, however muted, on behalf of their portion of “the American people.”

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