Box of Babel: Why TV's Diversity Is Not a Threat to the Common Culture

Article excerpt

Who killed Laura Palmer? In 1990, this became the hottest television question since "Who shot J. R.?" But the two shows that spawned those questions couldn't have been more different. Dallas was just an old-fashioned soap opera - a genre that had been pioneered on radio back in the 1930s. It featured the usual cast of rich men, attractive mistresses, and alcoholic wives. Its plot elements were simply racier and more-upscale versions of what the soap operas of the '30s had used: adultery, family feuds, dishonest business deals.

But Twin Peaks.... Television hadn't seen anything quite like it before. A surreal examination of the sordid underbelly of small-town life, the show had as central characters a midget who talked backwards, a singing FBI agent, and a woman who carried a small log everywhere. A key plot element was the demonic possession of one of the town's residents.

For one brief moment, the avant-garde images of Twin Peaks creator David Lynch (previously best known for art-house films such as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet) dominated the mainstream. And although Twin Peaks mania lasted less than a television season, the show permanently altered the TV landscape, opening the way for other off-kilter shows such as Northern Exposure and Picket Fences.

In the 10 years separating the shooting of J. R. Ewing and the death of Laura Palmer, television had changed dramatically. Cable had finally come into its own, and Rupert Murdoch's Fox network had begun to establish itself as a force. Increasingly, the television-viewing audience had fragmented. In 1980, the big three networks had over 90 percent of all prime-time viewers; by 1990, they could get only 60 percent of the primetime audience. More than half of all TV sets tuned in to find out who shot J. R. But only a quarter of all viewers watched the Twin Peaks episode that unmasked Laura Palmer's killer.

For 30 years or so, television defined a broad-based popular American culture. But beginning in the '80s, that culture began to break down, dividing into small subcultures, as technology, deregulation, and market demand made it increasingly difficult for the broadcast networks to attract a broad national audience. In turn each of these subcultures influences each other, producing a mainstrearn culture that is currently evolving at an ever more-rapid rate.

As television enters the 21st century, it offers a variety that viewers never could have imagined when they sat down to watch Jackie Gleason for the first time 45 years ago. The typical viewer has access to 30 channels today, compared to two or three in the early'50s. And these channels offer everything from music videos to soft-core sex films to classic movies.

This diversity has provoked a backlash. On the right, cultural conservatives such as Michael Medved decry the sex, sin, and violence that television brings into their homes. On the left, the type of intellectual who in the '50s complained about television creating a bland, homogenized popular culture now argues that TV is offering too much variety. "Whatever its failings, a mass medium creates a sense of community," writes Ken Auletta in Three Blind Mice. "[T]he public has an investment in the larger public purpose a network can perform..." Each side overstates the dangers of diversity and ignores the benefits from an expanding television universe.

In many ways television is beginning to resemble radio, with a multiplicity of channels serving a large number of specialized tastes. And we can see the future of television by looking at the past of radio. What is particularly interesting about the history of radio is that the musical genres it fostered did not exist in isolation; each form influenced the others, producing new forms of entertainment. And the technology of radio brought the sounds of these diverse musical forms into millions of homes, enhancing and speeding up this process of evolution.

In the '20s and '30s, the CBS and NBC radio networks established themselves as media of mass national culture. …