What Are You Watching?
It’s 2018, and a question I’ve come to dread is, “Are you watching such-and-such show on such-and-such network? You MUST.” Seriously. It’s almost as bad as, “Did you see what Donald Trump tweeted now?!”
And it’s not because my friends and acquaintances don’t have excellent taste. In years past, I appreciated their recommendations. And in all honesty, I still do—but at the same time, it’s frustrating. I barely have time to watch my shows; I can’t watch yours (and yours, and yours) as well. We are living in a time with too much good television.
But is there really ever too much of a good thing? There are certainly some positives associated with lots of television options. For instance, I believe that one of the most important functions of art is to serve as a mirror. If queer audiences were still limited to three channels to provide us with entertainment options, we’d certainly still be waiting for Queer as Folk, The L Word, Transamerica, Noah’s Arc, Queer Eye, or any number of television shows that allow us to see ourselves reflected in popular culture. Happily that limitation is long gone.
And, I think there’s something to be said for popular culture being…well, popular. But it’s just not anymore.
When the Roseanne revival premiered on ABC earlier this year, several friends asked if I’d be watching. I demurred; for many reasons, I am not a fan of Roseanne Barr (and no, her recent repugnance on her Twitter account did not surprise me at all). But even without me, the show was a huge hit. With 18 million people watching the premiere, it instantly became ABC’s most popular show. So okay, wow. 18 million people. That sounds like a lot.
But compare that to the finale of M*A*S*H (the most watched program of scripted television in American history). In 1983, 125 million people watched that show, and the Roots finale drew 100 million viewers in 1977.
And sure, those were the highest rated television shows of all time, but even the original run of Roseanne got twice as many viewers on average throughout its fifth season in 1992 as it did for the lauded premiere of its revival in 2018.
As I write this, the biggest hit in scripted television last week was an episode of NCIS on CBS, with 12 million viewers. That’s less than one percent of that M*A*S*H finale, only a third of what Roseanne picked up in the 90’s, and the most-watched program in the entire country right now.
I don’t think it’s a question that we live in a very fractured culture these days. Our politics are moving farther away from the center and clustering around the extremes. People are retreating into their comfort zones, where they remain ever more separate from those who are different from them.
As a result, our worlds are increasingly homogenous, unless you’re putting in a whole lot of effort to shake things up. And that’s a real problem. Not being exposed to people who look different and think differently increases the likelihood that we will fall victim to stereotype threat. It pushes us further to our corners, and makes life more dangerous for the marginalized and oppressed.
I’m well aware that our increased polarization is not the fault of lots of television networks pushing out lots of television shows. But I also believe that it isn’t helping. It used to be that we had more cultural markers to bring us together.
There was a time when everyone knew what “Whatchoo talkin’ bout, Willis?” meant, and where it came from. Someone could say “Oh, Archie” in their best Jean Stapleton, and you immediately got it. There was probably some value to be gained when all of us collectively experienced the shock and horror of the chicken turning into the baby during the finale of M*A*S*H (if you don’t know, I won’t tell you; I still need therapy).
I believe that those common experiences can bridge other kinds of differences. As shallow as it sounds, I believe that they bring us closer, and that the current cornucopia of options on broadcast, cable, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and all the others is only pushing us further apart. Perhaps only by inches, but it’s happening at a time when we really need to be moving in the other direction.
Sadly, I don’t have a solution for this problem. We have thousands of options, and they’re not going away. I’m certainly not going to get in between you and your RuPaul’s Drag Race, if that’s your thing; I wouldn’t dare. The only thing I can do is promise not to hold it against you if you don’t want to watch my latest discovery, as long as you don’t hold it against me if I don’t want to watch your favorite show either. ▼
Eric C. Peterson is a diversity and inclusion educator living in Washington D.C. and co-host of a weekly podcast about pop culture.