Uncommon Culture

So, Ricardo Montalban died. And — likely to his dismay – despite a huge body of work, his obituaries all seem to remember him for three things: (1) the vaguely dangerous Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island; (2) the Chrysler Cordoba commercials, where he arched an eyebrow over “fine Corinthian leather;” and (3) Star Trek II: The Wrath of KHAAAAAAANNNN!!!

And that got me thinking: if you’re a Gen Xer over the age of, say, 33, you probably knew all three of those references. Maybe you couldn’t remember Montalban’s name, or anything else he did, but if I told you he was Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, you’d say, “Oh, THAT guy?” Lame as Fantasy Island was – and believe me, it was lame – it was a show we all watched, mainly because there wasn’t much else on to watch.  We had only three networks to choose from — so despite our varying tastes in entertainment, chances are good we were still all watching Fantasy Island, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Incredible Hulk. Our entertainment options – our sources for popular culture – were limited.  But because our options were so limited, we have a common frame of reference, a common culture.

Today we’ve got cable television with a gajillion channels, many catering to different tastes and different genres.  There are channels that show only science fiction, others that show only cartoons.  There are hundreds of networks out there vying for your attention, all developing their own sitcoms, police dramas, and family shows.   

Don’t get me wrong. As a pop culture junkie, I love having channels that cater to very specific interests (where’s the Comic Book Channel when you really need it, though?).  My own daughter can pick and choose what channels she wants to watch, based largely on the kinds of shows she likes.  So can her friends.  So, while she’s watching Disney, another friend is watching Cartoon Network, while another is watching SciFi, and so on. Variety is what makes things interesting, and choice is something we take for granted.

But – at the risk of sounding like a old fogey — it also makes me wonder:  given the sheer volume of choices kids have, will today’s kids grow up to have a common frame of reference?  Will they have a truly common culture?  If not, is that a good or a bad thing?  I really don’t know.

Yes, I know I’m talking about television – and some might question whether not having a common frame of reference involving television is really the end of the world.  It’s not.  But be honest:  if you’ve ever started a discussion about [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE DUMB 1970s-1980s TV SHOW HERE] and someone says, “I never watched that,” it’s a good bet your first reaction was along the lines of, “I can’t BELIEVE you never watched that!”

We like having a common popular culture, even if, at times, it embarrasses us.

“Smiles, everyone . . . smiles!”

One response to “Uncommon Culture

  1. You may be talking specifically about television, but the same trend applies to all media.

    I’ve noticed it with radio: when we were kids, there were only a handful of radio stations per market, so the playlist tended to cover a wider variety of styles. Guitar rock and R&B sat together in perfect harmony, side by side… Anyway, that also contributed to a common experience. But now, you’re more likely to find stations that serve a much tighter niche, sticking to a narrower range of genre.

    Lest we think this only applies to popular culture, consider the effect on news sources. In 1979, the main source of news in any given city was that city’s local newspaper. 30 years later, papers from other cities — and other countries — are considerably more accessible. It’s no longer as clear that everybody in town is reading the same headlines.

    On the other hand, corporate consolidation of media has contributed to an increased level of homogenization. Returning to radio as an example: while any one market may have many more stations filling far smaller niches than 40 years ago, each of those stations is more likely to have identical programming to similar stations (probably owned by the same company) in markets across the nation.

    One of the effects I imagine that having is that you lose regionalism of culture. In the 1920’s, the jazz of Chicago was quite distinct from the jazz of New Orleans. In the 1960’s, soul music from Memphis sounded very different from soul music from Detroit. And this isn’t underground, DIY stuff — I’m talking about music produced by big recording studios. Do we see anything like this today?

    Like you, I can’t say whether the trend is good or bad — I’m inclined to say it’s both. But it’s undoubtedly different from what we had.