America's idol? Not exactly

TV no longer reflects the national psyche - if it ever did


The anointing of that gray-haired, white-soul balladeer as the latest "American Idol" last week was either the choosing of the next great American pop superstar, the end of civilization as we know it, a harmless diversion from the big problems of the day, or some mixture of all of the above.


In any case, the popularity of this Fox TV show is endlessly dissected for clues about the state of American society as it embarks on the 21st century.

Relax. It needn't be.

Consider that Fox was breathlessly touting that the viewers for the show topped - 35 million! That's a lot of people, but it's a little more than 10 percent of the country. Meaning almost nine out of 10 people had something to do other than watch two hours of singing and two minutes of drama.

A fair number of them were, of course, watching Lost, the intriguing ABC drama whose two-hour season finale was opposite American Idol. That's enough, probably, to boost the sales of Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (you had to be there), but again, not enough to qualify as a signifier of the American psyche.

Face it, the television audience is now so scattered and fragmented that only the Super Bowl draws the kind of audience that brings the nation together around its sets in a show of cultural unity. Otherwise, it's boutique shopping with one store occasionally stocking a particularly hot item - like American Idol - and drawing a somewhat bigger crowd.

Indeed, if you look at the networks' prime time schedule for next season, it's not that different from the nascent days of television. For instance, there were once Friday Night Fights. Now there is a Saturday night college football game.

For a while in pre-cable days, when it took an American Idol-size audience just to keep a show alive, sports didn't draw enough viewers, especially women. The exception was Monday Night Football, in part because of the popularity of the National Football League (see Super Bowl, above) but also because ABC made it a TV show complete with a Star Trek-like cast - Howard Cosell as Mr. Spock, Don Meredith as Scottie and Frank Gifford as Captain Kirk.

But now, with the bar for what constitutes a hit show lowered, the college football crowd will suffice on a Saturday night.

Shows similar to American Idol have been around, and quite popular, for as long as television itself. Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour emerged from radio onto TV in 1948 and was popular enough that all four networks - remember DuMont? - gave it a go at some point. It died in 1970.

Shows like that could make it on the networks then because there were fewer homes with TV sets, and thus the audience size required for a hit was smaller. But by around 1960, almost every home in America had a TV. The networks' corporations expected bigger audiences. Goodbye, Friday Night Fights - which was last seen in 1960 - and hello, Beverly Hillbillies.

But boxing lived on - it had an audience that could support it Saturday afternoons, and, for big fights, on closed-circuit broadcasts - as did Idol- like amateur hours. Remember Star Search, a syndicated staple from 1983 to 1995 hosted by Ed McMahon?

So Idol has pumped it up a bit, with a judging panel that is something of a copy of the Cosell-Meredith-Gifford grouping of the original Monday Night Football, plus a sophisticated phone-in voting system. But the fact that more people voted for Taylor Hicks than voted for President Bush is more a tribute to the advent of the redial button on telephones than to the cultural impact of this show.

Another back-to-the-future trend in TV is game shows. Again, they emerged from radio and became some of early TV's biggest hits. Damaged by scandals in the 1950s, the shows migrated to daytime TV until the shrinking size of what constitutes a hit allowed them back into prime time, with ABC's Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Now it's Deal or No Deal on NBC.

American Idol is, of course, something of a game show. As are most of the so-called reality shows that have mixed elements of TV staples: soap opera-like stories for women viewers, in the demographers' cliche, with competition to lure in the men.

Those shows took weird twists in their development. Consider one of the originals, CBS' Survivor. When it debuted, it was to be a test of cleverness to see who could make it in this state of deprivation. It soon became more of a study in social Darwinism - you didn't outwit the elements to make it; you stabbed your colleagues in the back. NBC's The Apprentice soon followed with a similar template but added a vengeful god in the form of Donald Trump, perhaps to appeal to the anti-Darwinists in the audience.

Taken together, such shows might say something about the American mind: You win the game, you get rich. That's the way people look at the economy - hard work is trumped by finding the right IPO.

But old TV templates are all over prime time. It's not only the cop-and-lawyer shows, like NBC's various versions of Law and Order, that remake the Perry Mason genre; it's also all these medical shows, many of which, like C.S.I., are really detective shows. But even Fox's inventive House mines the Mason vein - each diagnosis is like one of the witnesses who didn't do it until, at last, the guilty disease 'fesses up on the witness stand under House's relentless questioning.

The real message television gives us is that we have few, if any, national touchstones. We are a diverse and diversified society headed in a lot of different directions at the same time. Except on Super Bowl Sunday, of course.

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