Thursday, February 9, 2017

How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers

So, back on January 12th, I was quoted in The New York Times, which does not publish, as some would have it, all the fake news that's fit to print. The article first appeared online the day before, written by Farhad Manjoo, the title being How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers. And yeah, that's a link to the item over on their website, in case you want to read it in its original and unadulterated state.

As for the original print version, when I got my copy of the paper, I figured it wouldn't be in the first section, which is devoted to hard news and the op-ed pages. So I  looked for it in the third section, Arts, and it wasn't there. Then I looked in the fourth section, Thursday Styles, and it wasn't there either. That left the second section:

That's right, the article made the front page of the Business Day section. Interesting image they got to go with it, don't you think? And maybe it's kind of ironic, in a media ecological sense, that the image takes up more space than the text, as if the paper is somehow trying to compete with television on television's own terms, rather than emphasizing what newspapers do best.

Be that as it may, the bulk of the article was continued on page five:

And of course, it's a bit hard to read off of the images, which are in fact images after all, included via Blogger's insert image function, courtesy of my iPhone's camera. So, not to worry, here's the text in easy to read form:

When “One Day at a Time” started its run on CBS in December 1975, it became an instant hit and remained so for almost a decade.

In its first year, “One Day at a Time,” a sitcom about working-class families produced by the TV impresario Norman Lear, regularly attracted 17 million viewers every week, according to Nielsen. Mr. Lear’s other comedies were even bigger hits: One out of every three households with a television watched “All in the Family,” for instance.

Last week, a new version of “One Day at a Time” started on Netflix. Critics praised the remake for its explorations of single parenthood and class struggle, a theme that has faded from TV since Mr. Lear’s heyday.
So, a seemingly innocuous topic, at least to begin with, another of a seemingly endless run of remakes appearing on film and video, this time via Netflix. And this was the topic that Mr. Manjoo wanted to discuss when he contacted me. I should add that I have previously been interviewed regarding other Norman Lear TV programs, notably All in the Family and Barney Miller, as I related in my previous posts here on Blog Time Passing, All in for All in the Family and A Sitcom to Remember (not to mention my WNYC interview on the similarities between Archie Bunker and Donald Trump, discussed in last year's post, From Bunker to Trump (via Reagan), as you no doubt recall).

Anyway, let's get back to the article, and the difference that four decades can make:

Yet, well intentioned and charming as the new streaming version may be, there’s a crucial aspect of the old “One Day at a Time” that it will almost certainly fail to replicate: broad cultural reach.

The two versions of “One Day at a Time” are noteworthy bookends in the history of television, and, by extension, the history of mass culture in America. The shows are separated by 40 years of technological advances—a progression from the over-the-air broadcast era in which Mr. Lear made it big, to the cable age of MTV and CNN and HBO, to, finally, the modern era of streaming services like Netflix. Each new technology allowed a leap forward in choice, flexibility and quality; the “Golden Age of TV” offers so much choice that some critics wonder if it’s become overwhelming.

It’s not just TV, either. Across the entertainment business, from music to movies to video games, technology has flooded us with a profusion of cultural choice.

This is all well and fine in regard to the changing dynamics of the media industries and entertainment providers, but Manjoo has a deeper concern, one shared by many cultural commentators, and certainly amenable to media ecological analysis:

More good stuff to watch and listen to isn’t bad. But the new “One Day at a Time” offers a chance to reflect on what we have lost in embracing tech-abetted abundance. Last year’s presidential election and its aftermath were dominated by discussions of echo chambers and polarization; as I’ve argued before, we’re all splitting into our own self-constructed bubbles of reality.

What’s less discussed is the polarization of culture, and the new echo chambers within which we hear about and experience today’s cultural hits. There will never again be a show like “One Day at a Time” or “All in the Family”—shows that derived their power not solely from their content, which might not hold up to today’s more high-minded affairs, but also from their ubiquity. There’s just about nothing as popular today as old sitcoms were; the only bits of shared culture that come close are periodic sporting events, viral videos, memes and occasional paroxysms of political outrage (see Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech and the aftermath).

Instead, we’re returning to the cultural era that predated radio and TV, an era in which entertainment was fragmented and bespoke, and satisfying a niche was a greater economic imperative than entertaining the mainstream.
So, now, how about some historical context? That's where I come in, at least as far as this article is concerned:

“We’re back to normal, in a way, because before there was broadcasting, there wasn’t much of a shared culture,” said Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. “For most of the history of civilization, there was nothing like TV. It was a really odd moment in history to have so many people watching the same thing at the same time.”

That’s not to romanticize the TV era. At its peak, broadcast TV was derided for its shallowness, for its crass commercialism, for the way it celebrated conformity and rejected heterodoxy, and mostly for often not being very creative or entertaining. Neil Postman wrote that we were using TV to “amuse ourselves to death,” and Newton N. Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy, famously called it a “vast wasteland.”
As you may have guessed, I did mention Postman and Amusing Ourselves to Death in our conversation, and my point here is not to contradict the argument he made. After all, I did bring that very same analysis into the 21st century with my own book, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. And the argument still stands that on the whole, television has done more harm than good, but the fact remains that the medium did offer many benefits as well, which is what I emphasized in this context:

Yet for a brief while, from the 1950s to the late 1980s, broadcast television served cultural, social and political roles far greater than the banality of its content would suggest. Because it featured little choice, TV offered something else: the raw material for a shared culture. Television was the thing just about everyone else was watching at the same time as you. In its enforced similitude, it became a kind of social glue, stitching together a new national identity across a vast, growing and otherwise diverse nation.

“What we gained was a shared identity and shared experience,” Mr. Strate said. “The famous example was Kennedy’s funeral, where the nation mourned together in a way that had never happened before. But it was also our experience watching ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘All in the Family’ that created a shared set of references that everyone knew.”

As the broadcast era changed into one of cable and then streaming, TV was transformed from a wasteland into a bubbling sea of creativity. But it has become a sea in which everyone swims in smaller schools.

Only around 12 percent of television households, or about 14 million to 15 million people, regularly tuned into “NCIS” and “The Big Bang Theory,” the two most popular network shows of the 2015-16 season, according to Nielsen. Before 2000, those ratings would not even have qualified them as Top 10 shows. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is the biggest prestige drama on cable, but its record-breaking finale drew only around nine million viewers.

Clearly, we inhabit a different media environment in 2017 from the one that existed during the second half of the 20th century. And that is just in reference to broadcast and cable programming. What about steaming services such as Netflix?

Netflix does not release viewership numbers, but a few independent measurement companies have come up with ways to estimate them. One such company, Symphony Advanced Media, said Netflix’s biggest original drama last year, “Stranger Things,” was seen by about 14 million adults in the month after it first aired. “Fuller House,” Netflix’s reboot of the broadcast sitcom “Full House,” attracted an audience of nearly 16 million. On Wednesday, Symphony said that about 300,000 viewers watched the new “One Day at a Time” in its first three days on Netflix. (These numbers are for the entire season, not for single episodes.)

For perspective, during much of the 1980s, a broadcast show that attracted 14 million to 16 million viewers would have been in danger of cancellation.

That was a point that I made in our conversation. The criteria for a television show being unpopular during that time was nothing short of extraordinary, numbers that would have been considered wildly successful for any other medium. It really gave new meaning to the very concept of popularity. Which again points to the fact that we are now getting back to a more normal situation, when you look at the big picture historically. Although even the estimations about Netflix viewing, programming viewed by millions, are still pretty impressive. Anyway, let's get back to Manjoo's article:

We are not yet at the nadir of the broadcast era; cord-cutting is accelerating but has still not become a mainstream practice, and streaming services only just surpassed majority penetration. So these trends have a ways more to go. As people pull back from broadcast and cable TV and jump deeper into streaming, we’re bound to see more shows with smaller audiences.

“This is just generally true with how blockbusters across the media are going,” said James G. Webster, a professor of the School of Communication at Northwestern. “Some big ones could get bigger than ever, but generally the audience for everything else is just peanuts.”

A spokesman for Netflix pointed out that even if audiences were smaller than in the past, its shows still had impact. “Making a Murderer” set off a re-examination of a widely criticized murder trial, for instance, while “Orange Is the New Black” was one of the first shows to feature a transgender actor, Laverne Cox.

But let's return to that underlying point about audiences and a shared culture:

I buy this argument; obviously, powerful cultural products can produce an impact even if they’re not seen by everyone.

But I suspect the impacts, like the viewership, tend to be restricted along the same social and cultural echo chambers into which we’ve split ourselves in the first place. Those effects do not approach the vast ways that TV once remade the culture: how everyone of a certain age knows the idioms of “Seinfeld” (“It shrinks?”), or followed the “Cheers” romance of Diane and Sam, or how a show like “All in the Family” inspired a national conversation about the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

It’s possible we’re not at the end of the story. Some youngsters might argue that the internet has produced its own kind of culture, one that will become a fount of shared references for years to come. What if “Chewbacca Mom” and the blue and black/white and gold dress that broke the internet one day become part of our library of globally recognized references, like the corniest catchphrases of television’s past, whether from “Seinfeld” or “Diff’rent Strokes”?

That could happen. At the risk of alienating the youngsters, though, I’ll offer this rejoinder: “What you talkin’ about, Willis?”

Maybe so, but Chewbacca Mom is a Facebook video featuring a woman putting on a mask and laughing hysterically about it, while the blue and black/white and gold dress is just an image, albeit one that is a fascinating illustration of how perception differs among different individuals (I used it in my About page for the new New York Society for General Semantics website, and between you and me, I don't care what anyone says, it's white and gold). Compared to the combination of comedy and social commentary contained in 209 episodes of One Day at a Time that aired between 1975 and 1984, these examples certainly seem like a degraded form of discourse. 

And yet, One Day at a Time was hardly the most sophisticated form of television programming, in contrast to All in the Family, M*A*S*H, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and even then, these shows were only oases when placed in contrast to the rest of the vast television wasteland. They hardly compare to the shared culture created by print media, notably the role of the periodical press as the basis of open political discourse of the sort lamented by Postman, and longed for by Jürgen Habermas, as well as the role of literature in creating a unified national culture.

What television in its heyday was able to do, however, was capture the lowest common denominator in a way that no other mass medium had hitherto been able to, and that no other medium has been able to since the expansion of electronic communications via cable, satellite, and the internet. This created a shared culture that was, in many respects, a very low form of culture, but then again, one that unified our population in ways that may never again be possible.

One final note on the interview: we had a very stimulating conversation that lasted about 45 minutes, which was much more wide-ranging than the couple of quotes that appear in the article can possibly reflect. But that's par for the course. I think it is a little interesting that I was able to do the interview for The New York Times via Skype while I was in China (more on that in another blog post), while Farhad Manjoo was in California. This too is a function of our new media environment, as is the fact that I can share all this in this very blog post that I am writing right now (and that you are reading some time afterwards).


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