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More to watch, less worth seeing

Jan 14, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

Modern technology keeps old entertainment alive -- and it's usually better.

Popular media has been in constant flux since America's first commercial radio station, KDKA, hit the airwaves in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1920. The changes accelerate at an ever increasing rate.

As a member of the second half of the "Baby Boom" my generation is the first to live entirely in the realm of television. Sometimes it is simply amazing to realize that an early rerun of "I Love Lucy" was filmed in a time closer to the 1890s than to the present. While the comedy is timeless, the costumes, props and sets are dated.

"Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," "Wagon Train," "The Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek" (yes, I was just another example of the wasted youth of the 1960s) remain entertaining today, but were all created in a time long ago.I've read a bit of pioneering media researcher Marshall McLuhan this past year, and his perception of the chaotic world of popular media often was profoundly beyond his own time period. I enjoyed McLuhan's quotes more than the entirety of his text. After all, advertisers have now trained three full generations to pay attention in 20-, 30- and 60-second intervals.

McLuhan noted the rise of advertising with one of his oft-quoted statements that revealed how the future merges with the past.

"Ads are the cave art of the 20th century," he said.

In that vein we sometimes watch old television ads on one of the channels through our Roku box. For those unfamiliar with the Roku, it is little wireless device that connects to your television set with an HDMI cable, and brings with it an incredible array of entertainment that was unthinkable just a few years ago, all streaming in from the Internet.

While the dancing cigarettes, dishwashing liquid and 1950s and 60s era toy commercials are amusing, the political ads of the era aren't quite so pleasing.

McLuhan was on to the power of media in politics.

"Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be," McLuhan wrote.

The image arrived in 1960 when a young, handsome John F. Kennedy dazzled the television audience in his presidential debates with a haggard Richard Nixon. In fairness to Nixon, he had just left the hospital after surgery and was far from the top of his game when the most-famous of the debates was held. But that didn't matter to the public being swayed by the magical box in the center of the living room. All that mattered was the young senator's vibrant image compared to that of the vice president.

When you combine limited attention spans, with image over substance, and toss in a few talking heads spewing "information" on radio, television and the Internet, it is no wonder that we get the politicians we do.

In today's era, Abraham Lincoln (too tall, too thin, and not so handsome) Franklin Roosevelt (a handicapped president? Really?) and James Madison (so what if he's brilliant, he is so short...) would never make it out of the Iowa Caucuses, much less reach the presidency.

As we watched the first episode of "Saturday Night Live" from October 1975 on our Roku last week, it occurred to me that while the show was brilliant and avant garde for its time, the sets and wardrobe clearly display the cultural chasm that nearly four decades can produce.

My friends in the dorm often gathered in the lobby on cold winter nights during my freshman year in Laramie to watch the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" create an iconic image of America that lasts to this day. Somehow, though, watching a program performed live on a digital device 37 years later struck me as profoundly strange.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and dozens of other smaller providers are creating an anxious situation for advertisers. Customers pay a small amount to watch their favorite "classic" programs free of advertising. Episodes of "The Twilight Zone" for example, take only 21 minutes to watch with the commercials stripped away, and they flow very well.

Add to the growth in paid digital services over the Internet the fact that modern programming just doesn't deliver.

When the police sitcom "Barney Miller" went into syndication a few years after ABC cancelled the program in 1982 something strange happened. For the first time since television ratings began in the 1950s, reruns of the show on independent TV stations outdrew its original audience share on a major network.

It was the precursor of the modern era. Viewers can choose from hundreds of stations but something worth viewing is rare. Enter the online age of viewing on demand, an age when football outdraws all other offerings on broadcast TV, and new programs can struggle to generate a market share equal to established syndicated ones.

Perhaps McLuhan was on to the trend far before it became reality.

"As technology advances, it reverses the characteristics of every situation again and again. The age of automation is going to be the age of 'do it yourself."

Fewer people cook in America anymore, but cooking shows abound. Few build, but do-it-yourself networks now exist.

A final thought from the media prophet for you to ponder:

"Diaper backward spells repaid. Think about it."

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