The media decade

The 1990s will be recalled as an historic era that transformed how we live, work, interact, conduct commerce and even think.

July 25, 1999|By Leonard Steinhorn

WITH ALL the brouhaha over the millennium and the end of the century, amid the constant stream of "century's best" lists that wash over the press each day, we seem to be overlooking a decade that might emerge as one of the most significant in American history -- the 1990s.

Perhaps because we haven't been involved in a protracted war, a depression or widespread civil strife, the Nineties have seemed like a protean decade, at times consumed by tabloid scandals and at other times typified by the martinis, cigars, Land Rovers and IPO millionaires of a robust and booming gilded age.

But when the history of this era is written, the Nineties will go down as a decade that singularly transformed how we live, work, interact, conduct commerce and even think -- with as much gale force as when the factories of the industrial era shattered the old agrarian way of life.

What the Nineties will be remembered for is the ascendancy of media as the driving force in our lives. From the breathtaking growth of the Internet to the proliferation of television channels to the thousand or so niche magazines founded every year, media increasingly shape who we are, what we do and how we spend our time. America has moved from the Me Decade to the Media Decade, and there's no turning back.

Today, the average American spends more time on media than on any other activity besides sleep, and with rising Internet use, even sleep might fall behind. Young people -- the Media Generation -- have no concept of a life lived otherwise. Theirs is an existence defined by an endless loop of media, by the Internet, advertising, network television, cable television, radio, movies, movie trailers, newspapers, magazines, 'zines, video games, music video, compact discs, cell phones, palmtops, e-mail, instant messaging and distance learning. It's no surprise that coffee has become the beverage of choice -- even necessity -- in the Nineties as we respond both to the sheer volume of information generated by media and the speed at which it travels.

The media revolution this decade is redefining how we understand ourselves, our lives and the world. Indeed, the decade began with a powerful example of media influence -- the demise of communism, which was accelerated by the expectations and frustrations engendered by a media culture that the Kremlin no longer could control. In America, the impact has been more subtle but no less profound.

The phrase "snap judgment" might seem like an oxymoron, but increasingly it is becoming the normative way of getting things done.

For politicians, our 24-hour news culture -- accelerated by the Internet -- has compressed news cycles, hastened response time and altered the way they make decisions and communicate with the public. The stock market, driven by the Internet, is gearing up for all-day trading, and e-commerce has turned the home into another venue for consumption. Workers who conduct business in the car and take laptops on holiday find there is no longer a way to separate themselves from the office. Rest, as we used to know it -- relaxing, kicking back -- has become a quaint anachronism.

How we receive information is also changing. It used to be that people read books and newspapers the way authors and editors wanted them to. But now consumers of information are seizing control from the gatekeepers and producers. An information society built on sound bites, camera cutaways and mouse clicks no longer has the patience or interest to follow pre-packaged content.

So, with online books and hypertext, readers can choose how they get information and the order in which it comes, regardless of the author's intent. With customized news services on the Internet, readers determine their news priorities without an editor telling them what's important. Even Hollywood will change a plot if the focus group audience prefers another.

Television, which ushered in our media age, is also being transformed by it. For nearly a half-century, TV changed little. It was the electronic hearth built by three networks that gave us a common culture and shared memories.

But with the demise of the networks and the rise of cable -- increasingly the medium of choice for viewers -- broadcasting has changed to narrowcasting, and advertisers see niche networks as opportunities to reach a small but targeted set of eyeballs. People watch as much TV as before; they're just not watching the same TV programs. The network news, which used to bring us together every evening, is lucky to reach a quarter of adult Americans. Even Seinfeld, which "everybody" watched, captured only a third of all viewers.

Nor is television the only medium chasing demographics. In magazines, newspapers, radio, and film, marketing imperatives drive even editorial content. Segmented media accelerate the fragmentation of our culture. And we have yet to see the full impact of the imminent merger of television and the Internet.

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