Thursday, November 16, 2006

Culture Shock 11.16.06: Pop culture's diversity is its strength

If there is one thing about which pundits both left and right agree, it's that American culture is rotten. So rotten, in fact, that it threatens the rest of the world.

On the left, author John Tirman includes TV and pop culture among his list of "100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World." On the right, Karen Hughes, a longtime advisor to President Bush, was quoted recently saying, "One of the things I hear a lot, particularly in deeply conservative societies, is that parents feel kind of assaulted by American culture."

Oddly enough, the disgust of high-culture elitists on the left and the alarm of cultural moralists on the right share the same source. American culture is, in fact, more robust, more vibrant and more populist than ever before. And that, to many on both sides of the political spectrum, is exactly the problem.

We live in a world of 100-plus channel TV, and with a TiVo, you can, for all practical purposes, program your own station. If that isn't enough, you can now download many TV shows via the Internet, often free of charge, as with Fox's offerings at And if you're still not satisfied, even the most obscure shows of years gone by are available on DVD.

The Golden Age of Television isn't the bygone era of "Mr. Ed." It's today. Sure, you probably think 90 percent of everything on TV is a waste of time, and I agree. But there is now unprecedented diversity in American television. Competition between broadcast and cable TV stations, combined with growing competition from the Internet, is driving up the quality of that 10 percent of programming that is worth watching.

But what constitutes that 10 percent depends upon whom you ask. If you ask me, the SciFi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" is not only the best show on TV, it's one of the best shows ever, and Fox's "House" runs a close second.

Other people swear by "Lost" or "Grey's Anatomy," which are perfectly respectable choices, too. And others still worship at the altar of "American Idol," proving there's no accounting for taste.

But even if I hate "American Idol," that's not the point. I'm sure there are lots of people who would never watch "Battlestar Galactica." The point is, TV is now big enough for all of us. We're not limited to three broadcast networks plus British imports on PBS.

In the "good old days," TV was aimed at a mass audience. It was OK. We liked it. But is there a single show of the so-called Golden Age (besides the original "Star Trek") that inspires the rabid devotion of today's cult hits?

Today's shows are aimed at a far more fragmented audience. Shows don't have to be everything to everyone. We can point our satellite dishes upward at a galaxy of possibilities.

TV isn't alone. Over-the-air radio may seem increasingly bland, but with iPods and the ability to download music and talk programming from the Internet, there is something for everyone. Literally.

If "The Simple Life" is the price I have to pay for "Boston Legal," so be it. I don't have to pay attention to Paris Hilton, and you don't have to watch William Shatner. But at least we both have a choice.

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