TV blockbusters include participation in history

I’ve been away from my “beat” for nearly two weeks, and there’s a lot of catching up to do.

According to numbers from Nielsen, only one of the top ten telecasts in 2006 was a scripted program. Here’s the list, thanks to Lost Remote:

Top 10 TV Programs — Single Telecasts — 2006
Rank Telecast Network Date Aired % of Homes in U.S. (Rating)
1 SUPER BOWL XL ABC 2/5/2006 41.6
2 SUPER BOWL POST GAME ABC 2/5/2006 29.0
3 ACADEMY AWARDS ABC 3/5/2006 23.1
4 ROSE BOWL ABC 1/4/2006 21.7
5 GREY’S ANATOMY ABC 2/5/2006 21.0
7 AMERICAN IDOL-WED FOX 5/24/2006 20.5
8 AMERICAN IDOL-TUES FOX 1/24/2006 19.6
9 AMERICAN IDOL-TUES FOX 1/17/2006 19.3
10 AMERICAN IDOL-TUES FOX 3/21/2006 19.2
Source: Nielsen Media Research

This is noteworthy for two reasons. One, it shows the difficulty of “creating” a blockbuster. Contemporary blockbusters are slipping away, as mass marketing struggles to maintain its grip on media. The Long Tail, with its niche economy, is making it harder — and more expensive — to generate real blockbusters.

(In the news business, Hurricane Katrina was a blockbuster.)

Secondly, the nine shows that weren’t scripted all offered a sense of participating in history, one of the hallmarks of successful live television. Back in 1986, when he was Executive Producer of The Today Show, Steve Friedman told Electronic Media that the show had changed to a “more active, less reactive” program with a “shift in emphasis from a review of the day before to what’s happening now.”

“People are brought in as spectators to history,” he says, explaining, in part, why the show is doing more and more live material.

This “spectators to history” meme revealed a brilliant understanding of not only media but people, and it is a key factor in understanding what’s happening in our world from a postmodern perspective. Witnesses to history, after all, have a hard time buying anybody’s version that contradicts their own witness. Witnesses are participants, and that is something scripted shows are increasingly unable to provide.

So the unintended consequence of Friedman’s “shift” is that it has fueled the cultural shift that I call postmodernism. We are a participatory culture, and our institutions — media included — must alter their course to accommodate it.

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