TV's Population Explosion

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While listening to some NPR chatter about the latest Emmy Awards, I was a little startled to hear that there were some four to five hundred television programs either currently, or soon to be, on air.  I thought I would look this up for confirmation, and discovered on Wikipedia (I apologize for the source, but it was far the most relevant and useful for my purposes) that there are some 1,266 television programs currently in production, including such shows as Meet the Press (start date 1947) and the CBS Evening News (start date 1948), which go back almost seventy years.


More detailed analysis of the data shows, not surprisingly, that the number of new programs per annum really begins to ratchet up in the past five years, as new content producers in new media (like Netflix) get into the game.  The explosion in the sheer number of TV programs has apparently caused some concern among critics that it will be impossible to produce any really great shows with so many competing for talent and attention (nota bene: this, of course, has long been a complaint about mass culture itself), along with worries among producers that their productions will wither in the shadows of a cluttered forest of competitors.

But that isn't what interests me.

What does interest me is the question of what effect, if any, this mindboggling breadth of television programming may have on cultural consciousness.  A result of years of niche marketing in American mass entertainment, as well as of technological innovation (from cable to the Internet), the TV population explosion is part of an even larger historical moment that has seen the fragmentation of mass culture (often referred to as a "common culture") into ever more customized niche market groups.  To take one prominent, and often discussed, example: when the CBS Evening News premiered in 1947, it was the sole televised news source for the entire country; now, as the traditional network news programs continue their long slide, most viewers either get their news from sources (FOX, MSNBC, etc.) that package the news as their audiences want it packaged, or from infotainment hybrids (The Daily Show, Glenn Beck, Hannity), or, with increasing frequency, from Twitter, Facebook, and other user generated Internet platforms.  One might say—to modify an old 60's saying—we now have a system of different news for different views.  Goodnight, Chet.

In a similar fashion, when there were only three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) broadcasting entertainment— all of which shut down late at night (I'm old enough to remember seeing that famous Indian-head test pattern on the screen when nothing was on)—there really wasn't very much television choice.  With so few programs to choose from, everyone pretty much watched the same handful of shows, and being a Nielsen #1 (like I love Lucy, or, later, The Beverly Hillbillies) really meant something.

But don't worry, I'm not going to get nostalgic about all that here.  Those weren't the good old days; they were only different.  And after all, a monolithic news regime can broadcast stories that are little more than propaganda, while restricted television choice tends to reflect the ideology and interests of the dominant class that controls it.  As the ad that introduced the Apple MacIntosh to the world during the 1984 Superbowl intimated, lots of consumer choice (in the news, in entertainment, in information in general) has a lot of liberating potential. 

But still, there is a difference, and differences are what mark moments of cultural significance. With a "niche culture" replacing the old "common culture," we can expect changes in consciousness.  What those changes are, or will be, are not clear, but we can try to discern them by reading the signs that today's entertainments are sending.  In this respect it is significant to me that the record shattering award winner at the Emmys this year was HBO's Game of Thrones, a niche-marketed blood bath dominated by personal betrayal and sexual violence. It is equally significant that the only cable show that can beat Game of Thrones in the Nielsens presents an apocalyptic world wherein your own child can go "zombie" on you, and need to be shot.  Not many years ago House, MD proclaimed, "everyone lies"; now, the motto of some of today's most popular series could be "trust no one."

Has the fragmentation of American mass culture caused this apparent mistrust of everyone and everything?  No; correlation is not causation.  But, to borrow from the Frankfurt School's ideas about cultural "mediation," we might wonder whether both the niche-marketed proliferation of television programming and the appearance of such desperate shows as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead mediate a certain crisis in our society, forces that are pulling us apart as a nation rather than together.

Stay tuned.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.