Has the Mainstream Run Dry?

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Americans under 50, as the cliche goes, were raised by the mass media. And this fall, as grown children sometimes do, some of them began to neglect their mother. On the major broadcast TV networks, ratings among viewers 18 to 49 years old (the group most closely watched by advertisers) were down 8%. The drop-off was even worse among men under 35, the couch potatoes of the future. The rejection was almost poignant. You don't call? You don't write? It would kill you to pick up a remote?

The networks — which stood to lose hundreds of millions of ad dollars — blamed the Nielsen rating service. Advertisers blamed the programming. But the real blame belongs to a historical force more powerful than a Nielsen box, more pernicious than a stack of bad Coupling scripts and not limited to TV: the end — or at least the extreme makeover — of the mass-media audience as we have known it.

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For more than two decades the networks have competed with cable. Now they also vie with home video, computer games and the Paris Hilton sex tape on the Internet. The old three-network system swore by L.O.P., least objectionable programming. Now sizable chunks of the audience, especially young viewers, demand most objectionable programming — unusual, gross, risque. If you don't give it to them, they'll watch Punk'd or play Manhunt instead. If you do, you may lose your other viewers to HGTV or Lifetime. In the most mass of mass media, it is no longer possible to please most of the people most of the time.

But this is not only TV's curse. (Or blessing? More on that later.) In all of entertainment we are moving from the era of mass culture to the era of individual culture. Ask the music-biz professionals, if you can talk them off the ledges outside their offices. Album sales were down more than 5% from 2002's already dismal results, thanks largely to illegal music downloading. Legitimate online sellers like iTunes threaten to kill the album, the format that made entertainers into auteurs in the rock era, and to usher in the era of every man his own mix master. The movie industry has not been as badly hit by piracy — yet — but it went through a summer of surefire hits (Hulk, the Tomb Raider and Charlie's Angels sequels) that weren't. What's saving that business is DVDs — now a greater source of revenue than the box office — whose appeal is that, by offering special features, extra scenes and alternative camera angles and endings, they allow everyone to watch the same movie differently and separately. (Cannily, the apocalyptic chiller 28 Days Later was released in theaters with two endings — a made-for-theaters DVD.) The New York Times Magazine recently heralded theater for one — mini-plays designed to be seen by one person at a time.

There are two stories here, a business one and a cultural one. The business one should not deeply interest you unless you were hoping a Hollywood mogul would buy you a Hummer for Christmas this year. But the cultural story is about all of us — the Whitmanian, immigrant America of contradictory multitudes. Americans do not have a shared ethnic past or state religion. We have Jessica Simpson. Once, when tens of millions of people listened to the same summer hits, watched the same sitcoms and cried together in movie houses, the mass media defined what mainstream meant — what ideals we valued, how much change we would tolerate. If it's harder and harder to define mainstream pop culture, is there a mainstream at all?

Of course, no sooner had the printing press been invented than some pundit was probably bemoaning how people, individually consuming those newfangled "books," would lose the community spirit engendered by Passion plays and witch burnings. And it's worth remembering that mass culture was a 20th century anomaly. Before film and broadcasting, the idea of a giant country, much less the world, sharing a common culture was ludicrous. Travel 100 miles or so, and you'd encounter different dialects, values and folkways. Even religion could spread only so far before being locally amended by, say, a king needing a quickie divorce. Mass culture flattened out dialects and provided new Americans with a quick if superficial means of assimilation. But it developed only because the technology for mass communication was invented before the technology for mass choice. In the late 1940s some 80% of TVs tuned in to Texaco Star Theater because, yes, Milton Berle was funny but in part too because not much else was on.

But if mass media was a technological accident, it was also an idea, in synch with other ideas of its time. It was part of the mid-20th century age of bigness, centralization and consolidation — Big Government, the draft, central cities, UNIVACs, lifetime employment and evil empires you could find on a map. And its decline is in synch with a world that is increasingly decentralized, atomized and a la carte — tax revolts, the volunteer "Army of One," suburbs, the Web, job hopping and stateless terrorism.

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