I am done talking about The Sopranos, but I have to pass along this article by the wonderful Heather Havrilesky at Salon. It said everything I wanted to say but only better. (On a side note, how sad is it that the once-brilliant Salon has two of its only interesting regular writers left covering TV and sports? If it weren't for Havrilesky, King Kaufman and Camille Paglia's bimonthly incoherent screeds, Salon wouldn't be worth the time at all anymore. A sad, sad fall from grace. Lets have a moment of silence.)
Also, before I get started on today's topic, a little note from the Reinforcing Arizona Stereotypes file. It pretty much speaks for itself, but one important note is that Russell Pearce, one of the key players in this tragicomedy of 50s era paranoia, is also kind of a white supremacist. Pearce's city, Mesa, also still refuses to flouridate its water because it may be some type of evil U.N. plot.
OK, onto the business of the day. I have been reading alot about Shakespeare and pop culture lately and mulling over the typical academic definitions of pop culture and mass culture. Most academics' ideas about mass culture still derive from Adorno's idea of the culture industry. This idea holds that mass culture is essentially no different from any other capitalistic product, homogonized to appeal to the lowest common denominator and please the largest number of people possible. This distinguishes it from folk culture - culture by and for the people - and high culture, which is not meant to please the masses, but challenge a cultivated audience. Nevermind that this idea was formulated before the birth of television and rock & roll, the twin forces that created modern pop culture and has therefore been outdated for over 50 years. I believe that this idea has become even more outdated, and possibly unworkable, in the past decade.
Why do I think this? I am thinking of one of my favorite TV shows, The Office. The Office is a quirky, original, critically-acclaimed show with several awards and a devoted online cult following. It finished this past season at 68th in the overall Neilsen ratings. In other words, it has all of the markings of a cult hit.
However, it has one big difference from other cult shows of the past. It is a cash cow for its network. NBC, which nearly did not bring the show back for a second season, has turned the show into its workhorse. It is the anchor of its Thursday night schedule, one of its producers has just been given a network executive job, and they ordered a practically unprecedented 30 half-hours for next season.
Why so much love from the execs for a show with such pedestrian ratings. Because, in today's fragmentary pop universe, overall ratings mean practically nothing. What matters is demographics, and The Office is a leader among demographics that advertisers crave, particularly viewers ages 18-34 and those with incomes over $100,000.
The "affluent" demographic has become increasingly important over the last few years and it has tended to favor low-rated, critically-acclaimed shows. This makes logical sense, as higher income is, on the whole, tied to higher levels of education. It is the "affluence" factor that has allowed NBC to keep low-rated shows like The Office, 30 Rock. and Friday Night Lights on the air.
This all leads to the paradox that may unravel the typical notion of mass culture. In an entertainment world in which the quality of the audience becomes as important, if not more important, than its overall size, there becomes a financial reward for producing quality television.
Obviously, this is a half-baked idea at best right now, but it is something to keep in mind.