The water cooler wasteland

Jun 05, 2013

A friend mentioned the other day that he’d never seen “M*A*S*H.” Not a single episode of a landmark television show that ran for 11 seasons, and which for the past 30 years since it went off the air has been hard to miss, in my experience, particularly if you’re stuck in a hotel room.

But I understand completely. I suspect all of us have cultural gaps, big holes that never get filled by channel hopping or radio knob twisting (do people still listen to radio?).

His admission that Hawkeye Pierce could be a designer jean brand (I made that up) for all he knew came after I’d presented a short list of popular titles I’d never gotten around to watching, or caring to watch.

I could make it a longer list. I could mention that not only have I never watched “Gone With The Wind” all the way through, but I’ve never seen – not an episode, a moment – of “Law & Order,” a show that dwarfs “M*A*S*H” in longevity (it ran 20 years).

I’ve seen spoofs and skits and read references and heard rumors, but I never watched the actual show. Did I miss something?

Add to the above anything in the reality show genre, whether it’s dancing or singing or surviving, or losing weight; it’s not a conscious choice to avoid, or even a commentary on quality, since I have no real way of knowing. I just never got around to it.

And now it’s probably impossible. Our choices, once limited by network television, Top 40 radio and whatever was playing at the local movie house, have ascended to a higher plane of preference and availability, and we’ve become a nation of niche consumers.

The highest-rated TV show in the past few years seems to be something called “Dancing With The Stars,” which apparently draws an audience of around 12 million or so on a regular basis. Which means that roughly 300 million people are not watching it.

Which also means that if you spontaneously break into a dance move you saw on last night’s show, and you happen to be in a public place, 96 percent of the people around you aren’t going to understand, and possibly will be calling 911. Good luck.

It’s even harder to find a match with music. There was a time when we were saturated with popular music, when it crossed over from private to public, when you couldn’t help but hear the latest while in the mall or your car, or you had a neighbor with very loud speakers.

Now we have personal music, curated by ourselves, mixed by our preferences and taste, and listened to with headphones while we go about our business, not sharing and not caring that we don’t.

Although this also can be responsible for spontaneous dancing in public places. We’re all now hearing a different drummer.

Big movies are harder to avoid, since producers spend tremendous amounts of money to shove them in our faces and into our fast food franchises.

There’s a lot of buzz around these, some of it deserved, so even if you’ve not seen Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (I feel embarrassed; I’ll watch it tonight, I promise), it’s easy to be aware of the stars and the plot (the North wins, the South loses, Lincoln dies).

Still, for all the choices we have, not just about what to watch or read or listen to but how and when we do so, unless you’re a culture professional and write about the subject for a living, it’s not likely that any of us will experience more than a tiny fraction of what’s out there and available.

I see two sides of the same coin here (do people still use coins?). More choices are usually preferable to fewer, and technology and distribution changes have democratized creativity.

You don’t need a publisher to accept your manuscript or a record company to hand you a contract in order to place your efforts in front of the public. You can film a movie using relatively inexpensive equipment and edit it on your home computer.

But we’ve lost a water cooler (do people… never mind) sense of community, a shared awareness of current culture, and now we’re left with only the weather and sometimes sports in common with people not in our chat rooms.

The audience for the final episode of “M*A*S*H” was 125 million, about 60 percent of the country. If something approaches that ever again, I’m betting there’s a football game involved.

None of this I can change, or think I’d want to. I’d rather have the choices than the conversation tomorrow morning, and I can always find someone online to explain what happened on last night’s “Mad Men.”

Which I probably won’t watch until tomorrow or maybe Friday. I curate my own culture, and I’m pretty much alone.

About 1 percent of the country watches “Mad Men,” by the way. It’s like belonging to a club.

I’m not losing sleep over this. And it’s fun to introduce friends and family to new things, and to get recommendations from them. I like sharing discoveries, and I like pleasant surprises; this can all still happen, and it does.

And if you see someone dancing in the grocery store, give them the benefit of the doubt. It could be something they saw last night, or something they’re listening to, and maybe you’d dance, too.

Do people still dance? Yeah, I think they do.

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