Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Queens of Degradation

By David G. Young

Washington DC, June 26, 2007 --  

Fragmentation of the entertainment market has dragged once high and mighty television networks down to the level of the tabloids.

The media frenzy surrounding the legal and personal crises of American starlets Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan has been called a new low for American popular culture. American celebrities have taken the old adage of "there is no such thing as bad publicity'' to a new level, basing careers less on performances in film, television, and live venues than a public airing of least salubrious aspects of their personal lives.

Although coverage has grown greatly, celebrity scandals are nothing new. Hollywood gossip magazines of the 40s and 50s were dishing out details of celebrities personal lives even before the National Enquirer converted from a New York paper to become a supermarket tabloid in the late 1950s. Celebrity loathing of this and similar publications like the Globe and the Weekly World News long kept the stars from explicitly cooperating with the enemy.

But this enmity began to change as competition grew for Americans' entertainment attention. Cable TV channels came to most American households in the early 1980s, ending the triumvirate of NBC, ABC and CBS. This was soon followed by popularization of the VCR and the movie rental business. Low-cost startup broadcast networks followed that same decade bringing FOX, then UPN, and the WB. And the graphical internet's arrival in 1994 started competing for television time a full decade before sites like YouTube began offering comparable television watching experiences.

The fragmentation of the television document has been well-documented. Popular programs in the 1960s regularly saw 30 percent or more of American television households tune in, where programs today are lucky to get a 10 percent market share. Even today's blockbuster shows are almost insignificant by comparison to days gone by. Compare the 11.9 million1 Americans who tuned in to the final Sopranos episode to the 41.5 million who tuned in to find out who shot JR back in 1980.2

This fragmentation has made it less profitable to create expensive comedy and drama series. That's why cable channels and upstart broadcast networks pioneered low-cost reality television programs.

And it was this very medium that brought Paris Hilton to the big time, with FOX's 2004 reality series, The Simple Life. As cheap reality television programs create cheap celebrity through degrading acts, cheap television news on America's ever growing variety of 24-hour news channels delivers up-to-the minute coverage of every embarrassing celebrity folly. Television has thereby created a self-perpetuating system that not only allows celebrities to engage in idiotic behavior -- it virtually requires it.

It's no surprise that viewers have accepted this drivel, just as it is no surprise that people slow down to gawk at the effects of an accident on the highway. But show people enough accidents, and eventually they will become numb to the shock value and begin to look for something else. As there is little more shock value to be milked out of the American entertainment industry, an up tick is bound to happen soon. The tabloid-style degradation of the television industry has probably run its course.

Although a turnaround is overdue, the market is in a weaker position than ever to finance it. Not only have network markets shrunk, but television's primary funding mechanism has begun to erode. Tivo, YouTube, and Apple's iTunes video store all allow viewers to avoid the traditional 30 second advertisement. If actors and screenwriters are to produce new drama and comedy shows, somebody is going to have to find other ways to pay the bills.

No matter what happens with the funding of quality programs, there will always be a market for celebrity scandal. The same people who read the National Enquirer in the grocery store will continue to be interested in tuning in to the latest antics of Paris Hilton, Liz Taylor, or tomorrow's yet to be coronated queen of degradation. But as the novelty of such television entertainment wears off, it will probably be confined to the more tabloid-oriented distribution channels, just as celebrity tabloids are confined to the supermarket checkout lanes. To those of us weary of round-the-clock coverage of Paris Hilton on television news, such a confinement is long, long overdue.

Related Web Columns:

The White Supremacist Show, September 3, 2002

Just Around the Corner
The Belated Arrival of Video-on-Demand
, June 25, 2002


1. San Jose Mercury News, Ratings: Near-historic 'Sopranos' coup, June 12, 2007

2. Nielsen Media Research, Top 10 Network Telecasts of All Time (Ranked By Household Rating), April 2006