Some thoughts on fiction

I’ve written before about how important fiction is when it comes to setting cultural norms. I write lesbian romances with happy endings because that’s the narrative I want my readers to embrace. My characters overcome their struggles, they triumph over adversity, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. There are plenty of other books out there that deliver ambiguous or even tragic endings, but I want mine to affirm the lives of lesbians who are good people.

I just read an article stating that Emmy Awards viewership was lower this year than ever. As a former academic researcher in mass communications, I recalled some of the early studies done by George Gerbner on something called “Cultivation Theory.” Simply put, he believed that isolated media content such as a TV show had little power to influence its audience; but the cumulative effect of shows delivering the same types of messages would cultivate an audience to adopt a certain set of beliefs about how the world works.

In the 1950s and 1960s, most households watched the same stuff. Ergo, they got the same messages, and they were reinforced over and over. Some of the most-watched shows were sitcoms, with loving families that dealt with everyday problems in a way most people agreed was proper. Crime shows ended with the bad guys getting caught; well-meaning bumblers turned out okay in the end. Almost everyone was white, and almost everyone who was important was male.

I think when people of a certain generation get nostalgic about the old days, many of them are thinking of this “idealized” life as it was depicted on TV. Never mind that our real families were dealing with financial problems, divorce, the sexual revolution, Vietnam — we all had pretty much the same vision of what we SHOULD be because TV showed us week in and week out. No surprise then that some viewers began to feel shitty about themselves because they couldn’t attain this idealized life. They started to notice and appreciate more realistic portrayals.

1970s TV dealt with more social issues, and SNL came along and lampooned politics and culture. And we got more channels with more choices.

1980s, 1990s, 2000s … that’s all kind of a blur to me. I’d become a news junkie by then, too busy to watch entertainment TV.

Fast-forward to 2017, this record low for the Emmy Awards audience. The most decorated comedy was “The Marvelous Ms. Maisel” on Amazon, which probably drew only a tiny fraction of the audience that watched “I Love Lucy” or “The Andy Griffith Show.” There are now hundreds of channels, and we’re all watching something different. Which means we’re cultivating our perspectives differently. Father doesn’t always know best. Ethnic insults aren’t funny to everyone. Gays are being normalized. And killed. There are enough choices now that Jenny and I only watch shows with realistic, multidimensional female characters in lead roles.

As a society, we’ve splintered so much in our mass consumption of TV content that we no longer share a common cultural experience. Not that it’s a bad thing — that common experience wasn’t all that good for blacks, Hispanics, gays, old people, Appalachian people, poor people, etc. But it shouldn’t be surprising that we approach the world with different perspectives.

Diverse TV content not only reduces the shows we commonly watch; for those with narrow interests, it drastically reduces the number of shows that meet our needs. So this is your friendly reminder that books are there to fill the gap.

Lastly, something jumped out at me in that article, an observation that inspired this post. I wonder to what extent audiences have given up on trying to find shows that align with their point of view. NONE of last week’s Top 10 shows were scripted … i.e., FICTION.

NFL Football: N.Y. Giants at Dallas, NBC, 20.66 million
“NFL Pre-Game Show,” NBC, 14.22 million
“60 Minutes,” CBS, 11.44 million
“Football Night in America,” NBC, 10.89 million
“America’s Got Talent” (Tuesday), NBC, 10.75 million
NFL Football: N.Y. Jets at Detroit, ESPN, 10.5 million
“America’s Got Talent” (Wednesday) NBC, 10.15 million
NFL Football: L.A. Rams at Oakland, ESPN, 9.78 million
College Football: Ohio St. at TCU, ABC, 7.23 million
NFL Football: Cincinnati at Baltimore, NFLN, 7.06 million

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