Cable Channels Factionalize Us

By Rob Patterson

An article in the New York Times a few months back noted how broadcast TV — the major networks CBS, NBC and ABC — have reached a tipping point in their decline. It cited the irony of a cable company, Comcast, buying NBC.

I certainly enjoy the proliferation of narrowcasting in television as well as other media like satellite radio, with specifically themed channels super-serving audience segments and interests. The wealth of offerings, admittedly among a pile of sludge, trivialities and downright crap, has given entertainment consumers some gems we might not have otherwise enjoyed. There’s Comedy Central’s news and political hits like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. AMC has given us a real TV masterpiece series like Mad Men, and HBO and Showtime have created many excellent series that has prompted the networks to step up their game.

But at the same time, we are also losing something important and vital that I fear weakens the unity and sense of community of this nation. Back in the day when there were only the three broadcast networks, FCC Chairman Newton Minnow’s 1961 “great wasteland” comment had its salient point. And then public broadcasting did help raise the bar.

But broadcast television, for better or worse, was still a great uniting force for the populace. At age 56 I look back fondly at a time when a significant portion of the American public would all tune in on Sunday night to The Ed Sullivan Show, archaic as its entertainment revue format might seem today. Although many factors play into the notion that there will never be a popular music phenomenon like The Beatles, without a central TV outlet like Sullivan’s show, could something like that ever even come close to happening again. I think not.

Top 40 AM radio in the 1960s was a similar force. It didn’t play music aimed by genre at listeners. One might hear The Beatles (rock) followed by The Supremes (soul) followed by Johnny Cash (country) and who knows what next. It was all popular music; it only needed to be a hit.

Sure, the three broadcast TV networks system was in a way as limiting as the two-party political system. From CBS to NBC to ABC, the ideological and cultural differences were still rather slim. And much of the American experience such as life in the underclass and the margins and the fringes was glossed over and not at all represented.

And it might be wrong of me to think of shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver as representing the common American experience when what they showed was so narrow and idealized, as well as rather conservative. But then again, you also had The Twilight Zone that often rent the curtain of normality. And the Times article mentions later series like All In The Family and The Cosby Show, both of which showed how our society was changing, and I genuinely believe helped progress new attitudes and broader social, racial, class and political thinking.

Broadcast TV did transmit certain shared values — not all of them ones that in hindsight we might have wanted to promulgate — and a common experience that large segments of the people all experienced, sometimes even a majority. The networks did create at least some sense of large-scale community. And by the very nature of broad-casting, the entertainment fare was focused more towards all rather than some, even if it also left some out and too often had a lowest common denominator quality (though some of the network fare today, especially the reality TV phenomenon I simply don’t get, has another lowest common denominator aspect I find rather pernicious).

The best television shows are better than ever, yet some of them struggle to get enough of an audience to justify their existence (Friday Night Lights is one glaring example of that.) Just as our TV experience has been segmented and divided into smaller pockets, so has our cultural, social and political life been divided into factions, fractions and special interest groups. In losing certain larger unity, our options are greater and sometimes even richer. Yet we’ve still lost something that gathers us together in larger segments and creates at least some form of unity via our entertainment.

Yes, we have gained much from all the many channels at out fingertips coming into our homes through cables, wires and satellite signals. But there is also something we’ve lost, some common if, yes, hardly universal threads, and a sense of unity that couldn’t help but be created by the biggest hit shows and the major news events. And it is something that the world of entertainment shall never have again.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2010

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