Like every other normal person in American, I watched the big game on Sunday. This year I was busy with some projects so I did not attend a party. Instead, I planned to get some work done and then settle in at game time. Some people boycott the Super Bowl, believing it makes them virtuous, but those people are idiots. The game is often fun and the ridiculous hype around it is a nice weird American tradition. Plus, having a pseudo holiday the next day means people can have a party on Sunday in the dead of winter.
The thing about the Super Bowl is it is the one event that everyone watches. Even if you don’t follow sports, you watch the game because it is what you do. There are similar events like the Daytona 500 or the Kentucky Derby, but most Americans don’t plan a weekend around those. You watch them if you are home or down at the pub, even though you don’t follow these things closely. The Super Bowl is the one event that everyone talks about the next day, because you know everyone watched it, except for the weirdos.
That’s what makes it a good bellwether for the state of pop culture. For the second year in a row, TV ratings were down for the game, not by a lot, but still down. Now, when an event tends to get close to 100% viewership each year, there is nowhere to go but down, but decline is still decline. When looked at in context of the general decline in TV sports, it suggests we are in the midst of a great change in how people consume their entertainments. That’s the general consensus among the people in charge of television.
Cord cutting and streaming services are finally starting to cut into the tradition television programming. It’s not just TV feeling the pinch. Live events are also seeing a drop in attendance. It’s a little hard to get good data as there is an incentive to lie about the ticket sales by the organizers. College football attendance has been in decline, which is a good benchmark, as these events are not driven by hype or the momentary success of the teams involved. Attending college football games in a generational tradition that serves as a reunion for old college buddies and extended families.
How much of this is the availability of on-demand gaming and video services is hard to know. There’s no way to measure it. Part of it may also be changes in youth culture. Despite all the blather about sharing from Millennials, they are a self-absorbed and selfish generation, preferring not to share anything with anyone. A generation of sociopaths, who see human relations as transactional are not going to be inclined to big public gatherings or public spirited activities. It’s why colleges are in a panic. Their young alumni do not donate back to the school at rates anywhere near previous generations.
Now, people don’t change that much from one generation to the next, so it is not a good idea to blame parenting or biology for the culture change. It could also just be the pendulum swinging back toward normal. Attending big public events is a late-20th century thing. Well into the 70’s, attendance for sporting events was well below capacity and the tickets were cheap. In the 1980’s I went to Red Sox games because it was cheap. I paid five dollars for a ticket and sat among empty seats in the bleachers.
The same is true for television. Well into the 80’s, families looked at TV time as an evening activity after dinner. The obsession with television, movie rentals and gaming is a new phenomenon. The steady decline in viewership may not be be driven by cord cutting. Instead, people may simply be losing interest in these services and that is what is driving cord cutting. Put another way, we hit peak TV sometime ago and now the pendulum is swinging back. People are reassessing their expenditures on these items.
There’s also the fact that micro-publishing, for lack of a better word, is now financially viable. Anthony Cumia got fired off the sat-radio platform. Instead of groveling to get back on, he started his own show from his basement. He has teamed up with Gavin McInness and they are building out a network of shows. Mark Levin is doing the same with on-demand political chat shows. There are thousands of niche podcasters making a living as content providers. We are spoiled for choice outside the traditional platforms.
It has always been assumed that the mass media culture was a permanent feature of the post-industrial technocracy. Not only would human labor be replaced by automation, but individual thinking would be replaced by the collective mind of the media orthodoxy. It could be that what makes a mass media culture possible is always what ensures its demise. Anything that shows the potential to control the culture gets corrupted by the preachy and proselytizing. That, in turn, drives away the public into alternatives.
Regardless, the ground is shifting under the feet of our cultural masters. Cable monopolies are being forced to unbundle. DirecTV is now offering a cheaper service over the internet, hoping to appeal to cord cutters. The great unraveling will bring with it an unraveling of the business model. CNN will actually have to attract an audience to stay in business. TV shows will have to sell ads based on real viewership. Live performers will have to follow the lead of Lady Gaga and not go out of their way to piss on their audience.
Things are looking up.