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Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Choice

by @ 6:58 am on July 13, 2006. Filed under Technology

Fortune Senior writer Marc Gunther writes today about the extinction of mass culture and what it means for America:

NEW YORK (Fortune) — Quick: Name the biggest star in prime-time television.

Now: Name a star created by the Internet.

Finally: Name a great advertising slogan written in this decade.

Those aren’t easy questions, are they? TV’s biggest stars are Oprah Winfrey and Katie Couric, but they don’t appear in prime time and they’ve been around for years – before the 300-channel universe fragmented audiences and damaged broadcast TV’s hit-making machinery.

The Internet is by nature a niche medium so it has not created any stars, and probably won’t. (Please don’t bring up Matt Drudge. People who don’t follow politics have no clue who he is.)

As for advertising, there are no 21st century equivalents to “We Try Harder” or “Where’s the Beef?” or “Just Do It.” (Sorry, Microsoft, but “Where Do You Want To Go Today” doesn’t cut it.)

The point is, mass culture isn’t so mass anymore. Instead, culture is evolving into a “mass of niches.” So, at least, says Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, in “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More” (Hyperion, $24.95).

The author of the book argues that this creation of a niche culture is a good thing because it creates a variety of choices and allows consumers to find what they want rather than be limited to what business believes the mass of people desire. Gunther, however, apparently doesn’t think this is such a good thing:

I think the explosion of choice has left us poorer in at least two arenas. The first is journalism. (Yes, as a Fortune writer, I’ve got a stake in the health of the mainstream media, which bloggers call the MSM.) The network evening newscasts, big-city newspapers and the national news magazines once had the money, access, skills, commitment and power to deliver lots of original reporting and put important issues on the national agenda. Today, they are all diminished.

To pick a single, timely, example, The Tribune Co. announced just the other day that its newspapers would be closing foreign bureaus in Johannesburg, Moscow, Lebanon and Pakistan. This is happening all over newspaperdom and it happened years ago at the broadcast networks.

Yes, there is more information available to us than ever, but I don’t think we are better informed. Niche media will, inevitably, continue to weaken mass media.

Only if mass media allows it to happen and refused to adapt to the new reality. Niche media has a place in the media world the same way that specialty coffee shops have a place in the coffee world. Both have a lesson to teach their larger comeptitors, which they will either learn or perish for not learning.

Politics in America has become polarized for many reasons, but a big one is the fact that people can now filter the news and opinion they get to avoid exposure to ideas with which they disagree. Anderson suggests that this could well be a temporary problem, and that if the major parties continue to move to the extremes and the quality of debate continues to deteriorate, the Internet could well enable a new party or parties, to arise.

It think its fairer to say that the Internet, talk radio, and other forms of expression and information exist principally because people perceive, correctly, that the traditional media is either biased in the way it presents the news or simply choose not to cover a story altogether. It also shows that Americans of the 21st Century, like Americans before them, enjoy good political arguments. Also, the fact that people are choosing to get information from only the sources they desire is, in some ways, a return to the way things were in America before the 20th Century. There were Republican newspapers, Democratic newspapers, and Socialist newspapers. You read the paper you agreed with and rarely stayed over to the other side. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Does Gunther really think that w’d all be better off if the only news we got came nightly from the likes of Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, and Katie Couric ? Sadly,? I think he does.

Gunther’s final argument does have some resonance:

Mass culture provides intangible benefits, too. Big stars, hit TV shows and even commercials help knit a society together. Think of the feeling that comes a few times a year – the morning after the Super Bowl or the Oscars – when tens of millions of Americans share a common experience.

And the Super Bowl remains the one great mass culture event in America. Its likely to stay that way for awhile. Will it change someday ? Probably, but that’s not a bad thing either.

3 Responses to “Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Choice”

  1. KipEsquire says:

    “Big stars, hit TV shows and even commercials help knit a society together.”

    This seems to me just another manifestation of the futile yearning for the “Faux Fifties,” when things were so much better than they are today, mostly because back then everyone was a suburban straight white male with no physical or mental disabilities.

    Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

  2. KipEsquire says:

    Oops, I left out “Christian.”

  3. Kip,

    I don’t disagree. One example of this that comes to mind is that commentators will often mention who many people watched, for example, the last episode of a popular television show from the 70s or 80s like MASH or the whole Who Shot JR ? Compare those ratings to something like the last episode of Friends, which had far fewer viewers in terms of raw numbers.

    The reason, of course, is that in the 70s and 80s there wasn’t much of anything else to watch — there were fewer choices. Given the choice, people have drifted away from broadcast television in droves.

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