Technology/Critic's Notes (Pop Culture)
How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers
By Farjad Manhoo, The New York Times
' 'State of the Art' Column - Jan. 10, 2016
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 created 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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 morphed 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.
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. (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 would have been in danger of cancellation. (Symphony does not yet have audience numbers for the new “One Day at a Time.”)
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.
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 kids, though, I’ll offer this rejoinder: “What you talkin’ about, Willis?”