Getting Serious

Oh, sure,” said my son when I told him I planned to fly to New York later this month. “Planes are falling out of the sky and you decide it’s time to take a trip.”

He turned away to finish addressing an envelope he would use to send a contribution to the Sept. 11 relief fund. Then he asked me for a Diet Coke and went back to watching MTV.

Barely a week after the horror of Sept. 11, he had processed and begun to live with a new, more somber reality. Neither forgiving nor forgetting, but living, nonetheless—turning to the same media for diversion and using the same products, but also acknowledging there’s more to life than the latest Lagwagon song.

True, both the scope of the disaster and the coverage it received were unprecedented. Initiative Media estimates that a total of 33,000 broadcast minutes (some 550 hours) of sustained news coverage were devoted to the events of Sept. 11, far more than the biggest TV story of the last decade, the Gulf War, which received 5,100 minutes of coverage. Still, media usage is already settling back to its normal patterns.

So, too, are viewers’ habits. A survey from Knowledge Networks-Statistical Research Inc. conducted over the weekend of Sept. 22-23 revealed that 80 percent of Americans believe it is once again OK for networks to launch new shows; 77 percent indicated likewise about advertising on entertainment shows.

Yet content has changed and will continue to do so. More news programming could emerge, much as ABC’s Nightline evolved from ongoing coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis two decades ago. Asked how they would react to a hypothetical, five-minute nightly program offering the latest news on the terror attacks and their aftermath, more than 80 percent of the KN-SRI respondents said they would be interested. More to the point, better than two-thirds said they would regard advertisers sponsoring such a program as “industry leaders.” And 40 percent of those who said they’d be interested in the program also said they’d be more inclined to buy products from its sponsors.

In these findings—which point toward rewarding advertisers for doing something meaningful—one sees the impact of what pundits are calling the end of the “age of irony.” The culture, so the theory goes, is undergoing a watershed shift away from sarcastic, celebrity-obsessed idiocy and toward a more serious (read “superior”) mind-set.

This has been coming for a while. A tanking economy certainly doesn’t evoke much of a sense of frivolity. And one could—if one turned off the TV, shut one’s eyes and pretended there was no such thing as a Britney Spears—discern an invisible yet palpable yearning for meaning welling up in the cultural corpus, even before Sept. 11.

It was a sense that we were beginning to tire of wallowing in the shallow end of the societal pool. That cheap thrills, sneers and smirks had outstayed their welcome.

Last month’s tragedy didn’t do in the age of irony. It would have fallen on its own arrogant ass anyway.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer era.