Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic: The Year in Review – Wit’s End

These days it’s taken as fact that 9/11 didn’t raise the tone of the culture as much as we thought it might. Consider that 2002 began with the premiere of Fox’s The Chamber, in which contestants answered trivia questions while being roasted, frozen or otherwise tormented—a concept that seemed such a surefire extension of reality TV that ABC had its own version, The Chair. Now, as the year winds down, we learn that ABC is developing Are You Hot?, which takes the American Idol formula—talent show with bitchy judges—and removes the one bit of substance, the talent, from the equation.

Sandwiched between these low-culture landmarks was Jackass: The Movie, which caused demographically desirable audiences to laugh at moronic stunts until their supersized Cokes came out their noses. It’s all evidence that we emerged from our national trial number and dumber.

That is, unless we actually got smarter.

After all, The Chamber lasted little more than two weeks, its rival a couple of weeks longer, their fates proving that it is possible after all to underestimate the intelligence of the American people. And what was the story of the year on the talk-show circuit, traditionally the incubator of some of the culture’s most mind-rotting slime? Not Rosie O’Donnell’s coming out, which the Will & Grace-loving public took entirely in stride. No, it was the demise of the Oprah Book Club, that pillar of American literary life, which introduced millions of readers to hundreds of books. Meanwhile, professional wrestling and its avatar, the WWE, which was talking trash financially just a few years ago, has fallen on hard times.

So which is it, dumber or smarter?

“I think the answer is that we’re getting smarter and dumber at the same time,” says Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University and author of the 1998 book In Praise of Commercial Culture (Harvard University Press). If it seems that more entertainment is aimed at our inner moron, Cowen says, it’s because there is simply more of everything. “If you have 100 channels, you are going to have more dumb shows,” he points out. Thus, The Bachelor propagates the upcoming Joe Millionaire, while the drug-addled Ozzy Osbourne begets the just plain stupid Anna Nicole Smith.

However, the forces that create more lowbrow diversions also create more highbrow ones, the yin to our culture’s dim-witted yang. With the rise of the Internet, Cowen says, “Anyone who wants to can really educate himself pretty well on a subject at extremely low cost. The number of choices have guaranteed more access. For those who are interested in it, high culture—Mozart, Shakespeare, Plato—is easy to get ahold of.” Then again, thanks to the Internet, so is pornography.

Yet anyone with a TV dial that reaches three figures knows what Cowen means. Consider Trio, one of those post-PBS artsy networks that have mushroomed in our multichannel universe. Trio has recently been airing (and airing) the documentary Brilliant but Cancelled, a long kvetch by television producers and writers lamenting the demise of TV shows too groundbreaking, unconventional or sophisticated for the nitwit tastes of the mass public. But then Trio contradicts its premise by actually airing some of the shows, proving that, given enough channels, even the groundbreaking, unconventional and sophisticated can reach an audience.

If you look for them—and not a lot of critics do—there are plenty of signs that the audience for more “elevated” entertainment has grown even as bread-and-circuses diversions flourish. While the entertainment conglomerates devote more and more resources to the rote thrills of movie sequels, more difficult independent films have also prospered among critics and audiences. On Broadway, Baz Luhrmann is successfully selling the Puccini opera La Bohème as a must-see pop-culture spectacle. And a recent Newsweek cover story suggested the impossible: Thanks to heated competition among cable channels for toddler eyeballs, some television might actually be good for kids.

The news is upbeat on the literacy front, too. A recent study of the publishing industry showed that more books are being published today than ever before, and more people with more literate tastes are buying them. For example, for several weeks this fall The New York Times bestseller list was crowned by the literary first novel The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, which beat out titles from such blockbuster machines as Stephen King and John Grisham. And when they are not reading books, Americans are apparently going to museums: The Association of Museums estimates that Americans currently make 865 million collective visits to museums a year, compared with an estimated 600 million visits a year in the early ’90s.

All this makes sense against a population whose education level continues to rise. According to the 2000 census, more than 80 percent of Americans have graduated from high school, and more than 25 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, up from 75 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in 1990.

But make no mistake, there are powerful forces at work on the side of dumb. One key driver of the culture’s dumbward drift is the media’s infatuation with young demos, who display a fondness for humor that focuses on one or more bodily orifice and the excretions thereof. (It’s the same in Europe, by the way, where a new marketing campaign for a Sony Ericsson mobile phone promotes drooling—a strategy that the company justifies by claiming its 16-25-year-old targets are too sophisticated for a conventional ad pitch.) Dumb is the cultural price we pay for a youth-oriented society. In Chicago, for example, both the Tribune and the Sun-Times are using dumb as bait as they compete to create the witless and subliterate tabloid that young readers presumably want.

The more dumb entertainment there is, the greater the pressure to come up with something dumber. The many mutations of reality TV—from the hammy johns in Cathouse on HBO to The Will, a show in development at ABC in which family members compete for an inheritance—are a study in the survival of the stupidest, the most humiliating, outrageous and mean-spirited.

The way dumb yields dumber can also be seen in the personality weekly magazine category. Twenty-eight years ago, when People was introduced, it was derided as Time Lite. This year, the new Us Weekly under Bonnie Fuller reigns as People Lite. With shorter stories, bigger pictures, captions full of cartoony ‘tude and a fixation on celebrities, Us owes a lot more to the model of the supermarket weekly than to the news magazine. In the cultural marketplace of many choices, The National Enquirer filters up even as La Bohème filters down.

Thus, high culture flourishes as a niche product, while dumb remains the opiate of the masses. But then, that’s not really new. Professor Cowen, who writes in defense of cultural optimism, points out that “there has never been a period when every person was interested in high culture.” The difference is that “now, people who want to can sample.”

Those who’ve gained the most, then, are not the consumers of dumb, who are always with us and whose tastes popular culture has always satisfied. The winners are the consumers of smart, who have more diversions of interest and cheaper access to them than at any time in history.

At least that’s the optimist line. On the other hand, look at what’s happening with the latest generation of digital camcorders and video-editing software. These technologies put real moviemaking capabilities in the hands of the people, particularly kids who grew up on computers and adapt easily. So what are these budding Eisensteins making with these awesome creative tools? Homemade versions of Jackass, of course.

Score one for the pessimists.