Bowling Alone with the TV Off

Ideas and Issues Media

            Pearl River     There have been a flurry of articles about the 50th anniversary of the last episode of the television series, M.A.S.H.  Alan Alda, the primary star as Hawkeye, is still alive and has been quoted at length.  What caught my eye was a comment that the almost 106 million viewers for that show are mass viewing numbers unlikely to be repeated.  That’s interesting to me.

If you look at the most viewed television events in most countries, sports dominate the list.  That’s certainly true for the United States as well.  In the top thirty, the Super Bowl cops 20 of the top slots.  The Muhammad Ali v. Leon Spinks fight in New Orleans in 1978 is one the list, which I noted especially, since my birthday present that year, as we were opening ACORN’s national office in the city, was a ticket to the fight.  So that makes 21 of the top 30, and if you include people watching O. J. Simpson’s Bronco ride in Los Angeles, you could also say sports gets some credit for 22 of the 30.  At the top was the landing of Apollo on the moon in 1969.  At the bottom at number 30 was the opening of Disneyland in 1955.  Nixon’s resignation is in the top ten.  M.A.S.H. was 11, Roots was 14, and The Day After, which was some kind of post-apocalypse flick, that is unknown to me from 1983 is in the top 30 as well.  I guess I was busy, but that was in my MTV phase after our son was born, so who knows?    It’s not much different for worldwide audiences.  Obama’s inauguration makes the short list along with coronations and weddings of the royal family, and, yes, a lot of sports.

Robert Putnam in the his ridiculously oft-quoted Bowling Alone that looks at the decline of associations and collective activities laid part of the blame when published in 2000 on television as one of the primary culprits.  In essence, people had found another sinkhole to pour their time into rather than church, bowling, and myriad clubs, and they could do it alone.  He was talking about network television in the age before ubiquitous cable and streaming options, and, of course, social media, perhaps a bigger time and energy suck than television ever was and despite the word “social” in the phrase, is a pretty solitary experience.  Putnam or someone needs to update that book, warts and all, because the real clue to mass disconnection and division may not be the decline of associations and collective action, but the tribalism caused by such a wide diversity of demands for our attention and activity and the ease that people can search for the like-minded across the spectrum.

An update might also find that sports is now the “opiate of the masses” way more than religion, which is fast becoming another fading phenomenon in the atomization and alienation of mass society.   It’s interesting to wonder what today would bring masses of people together at one time and place in an identical experience?  Do we just settle for the people we can bring together on the same page, or do we keep building something that can appeal to the majority, even if not one and all?