Published: December 29, 2009
Get what you want, when you want it. That's the phrase that has dominated the entertainment industry over the past decade. New technologies have given us access to countless channels for music, television and film — and we can sample them whenever we find it convenient. But as the options multiply, are we losing our sense of a common culture?
Take "The Outing," the Seinfeld episode in which a reporter thought Jerry and George were lovers. Even if you didn't see it — not that there's anything wrong with that — you heard about it: at work, at school, in the checkout line at the grocery store. And suddenly the show about nothing, says Stanford University communications professor Clifford Nass, meant something even to people who didn't watch it.
"That's really what marks cultural touchstones," says Nass. "Things that people are aware of; that they can share; that they can make reference to — that they don't actually have to consume themselves."
More than 40 percent of American households saw the final episode of Seinfeld in the spring of 1998, according to the Nielsen ratings company. Fast-forward about 11 years: American Idol may be the most popular program on television today, but only about 16 percent of American households saw this year's finale.
Too Much To Share?
Over the past decade, the number of television channels has more than doubled. There's Lifetime for women, Spike for men, the Syfy channel, Comedy Central, yadda yadda yadda.
Add on YouTube and Facebook, Twitter and FunnyOrDie, and there's just a lot more stuff to keep track of than there was in the days when there were three main TV networks.
For better or worse, the likelihood of another Seinfeld gets smaller with each new source of content. And that, alongside similarly fragmenting landscapes in news, politics and culture, has social scientists worried.
"In history, as far as we can tell, there have never been cultures or societies in which there weren't a very large set of shared ideas — norms, values, stories" and so on, says Nass. "We've just never seen that before."
As the monoculture fragments, social-media platforms and other wired and unwired communities are creating new kinds of connections — connections that are building bridges between people in ways that watching Seinfeld never could. But Nass says they're not likely to be the kinds of connections that will hold a nation together.
"The problem is, the things that tend to glue society together are people who share a number of things together," Nass says. "It makes it easier to mobilize, to bring people together behind a cause, behind an issue" — health care, say, or war.
Just look at the fractured response to health care overhaul proposals at town hall meetings across the country. Could it be that former President George W. Bush understood this when, rather than asking the country to pull together in shared sacrifice at the advent of the Iraq war, he instead told us to go shopping? [Copyright 2013 NPR]
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. We're reporting next on the side effects of our mass media. Every year, we get a little bit closer to a world where you get what you want when you want it - at least when it comes to entertainment. New technologies have given us access to countless channels for music and television and film. But NPR's Laura Sydell wonders whether convenience is costing us a sense of common culture.
(Soundbite of "Seinfeld" theme music)
LAURA SYDELL: Remember the "Seinfeld" episode when a reporter mistakenly thought that Jerry and George were lovers?
(Soundbite of TV show "Seinfeld")
Mr. JERRY SEINFELD (Comedian): We did the whole thing for your benefit. We knew you were eavesdropping. That's why my friend said all that. It was on purpose. We're not gay - not that there's anything wrong with that.
SYDELL: And not that there's anything wrong with it if you didn't see the episode or any of the other famous ones - you know, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Professor CLIFFORD NASS (Communications, Stanford University): Even if you didn't see them, you knew about them.
SYDELL: That's Clifford Nass, Stanford University communications professor. He says "Seinfeld," a show about nothing, actually meant something. Americans laughed together.
Prof. NASS: That's really what marks cultural touchstones, things that people are aware of, that they can share, that they can make reference to that they don't actually have to consume themselves.
SYDELL: More than 40 percent of American households saw the final episode of "Seinfeld" in the spring of 1998, according to the Nielsen Company. Fast-forward about 11 years.
(Soundbite of TV show, "American Idol")
Mr. RYAN SEACREST (Host, "American Idol"): The winner of "American Idol" 2009 is Kris Allen.
(Soundbite of applause)
SYDELL: You can be forgiven if you have no idea who Kris Allen is. "American Idol" may be the most popular program on television today, but only about 16 percent of American households saw this year's finale.
Over the last decade, the number of television channels has more than doubled. There's Lifetime for women, Spike for men, the Syfy channel. Add on to that the Internet and YouTube.
Professor Abigail De Kosnik with U.C. Berkeley's Center for New Media says once the nation shared trusted anchors like Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings. Now everyone can find the news that suits their taste.
Professor ABIGAIL DE KOSNIK (U.C. Berkeley's Center for New Media): Fox News will take a stance that represents a certain set of values, and "The Daily Show" will take a stance that has a very different ideology than Fox News.
For better or for worse, when we did have 60 million people watching any one network's nightly new program, that meant that 60 million people had to all receive the same information and make up their minds about it and be in dialogue with one another about it.
SYDELL: De Kosnik says people watch the news they find agreeable, and then they use the Internet to chat with the people who share their tastes and opinions. Stanford Professor Clifford Nass says social scientists find the current trends worrisome.
Prof. NASS: There have never been cultures or societies in which there weren't a very large set of shared ideas, norms, values, stories, cultures, etc. We've just never seen that before.
SYDELL: Of course, having a mainstream culture also meant that some people felt left out.
Ms. KENNA FUNG (Student): I'm Kenna, Kenna Fung, and I'm kind of a nerd.
SYDELL: A science fiction nerd. Fung particularly loves the BBC program "Doctor Who," which airs on cable in the U.S. Doctor Who is an alien who travels through time and space. He often visits Earth.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Doctor Who")
Mr. DAVID TENNANT (As The Doctor): I'm the Doctor, by the way.
Ms. KYLIE MINOGUE (As Astrid Peth): Astrid, sir. Astrid Peth.
Mr. TENNANT (As The Doctor): Nice to meet you, Astrid. Merry Christmas.
SYDELL: "Doctor Who" didn't interest anyone else in school, says Fung.
Ms. FUNG: Even though I know they had a lot of viewers across the world and across the country, nobody at school was really into it. And so I felt I felt like I was the only who liked that, and I had nobody to talk about it with.
SYDELL: At least not in person. But she did meet people through online fan sites.
Ms. FUNG: How have you been?
Ms. MARY BISTER(ph) (Medical Student, University of Chicago): I've been fine. Thanks.
SYDELL: Fung met Mary Bister online. The two of them have never met in person. I suggested Fung give her a ring, and they had no problem launching into a conversation about the new actor who will play Doctor Who.
Ms. FUNG: I can't wait to see if Matt Smith has any weird facial expressions just like David Tennant did.
Ms. BISTER: But don't you think he has to with that face?
SYDELL: In the real world, this friendship between 35-year-old Bister, a medical student at the University of Chicago, and 19-year-old Fung, a community college student in San Mateo, would be unlikely.
Ms. BISTER: I don't have a whole lot of young adults, late teens, early 20s, friends. But in the "Doctor Who" fandom, that's the big percentage of who's there.
SYDELL: Clearly, these kinds of connections cross bridges between people in ways that watching "Seinfeld" or the evening news at home never could. But Stanford Professor Clifford Nass says they're not likely to hold a nation together.
Prof. NASS: The things that tend to glue society together are people who share a number of things together. It makes it easier to mobilize, to bring people together behind a cause, behind an issue.
SYDELL: Like health care or war. There were decades when if you hadn't heard of certain cultural touchstones like "Seinfeld" or Michael Jackson, you might be considered to be living under a rock. But as technology lets each of us indulge our personal desires and tastes, we now can crawl under our own rocks.
Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.