Who killed Laura Palmer? In 1990, this became the hottest television question since "Who shot J. R.?" But the two shows that spawned those questions couldn't have been more different. Dallas was just an old-fashioned soap opera—a genre that had been pioneered on radio back in the 1930s. It featured the usual cast of rich men, attractive mistresses, and alcoholic wives. Its plot elements were simply racier and more-upscale versions of what the soap operas of the '30s had used: adultery, family feuds, dishonest business deals.
But Twin Peaks….Television hadn't seen anything quite like it before. A surreal examination of the sordid underbelly of small-town life, the show had as central characters a midget who talked backwards, a singing FBI agent, and a woman who carried a small log everywhere. A key plot element was the demonic possession of one of the town's residents.
For one brief moment, the avant-garde images of Twin Peaks creator David Lynch (previously best known for art-house films such as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet) dominated the mainstream. And although Twin Peaks mania lasted less than a television season, the show permanently altered the TV landscape, opening the way for other off-kilter shows such as Northern Exposure and Picket Fences.
In the 10 years separating the shooting of J. R. Ewing and the death of Laura Palmer, television had changed dramatically. Cable had finally come into its own, and Rupert Murdoch's Fox network had begun to establish itself as a force. Increasingly, the television-viewing audience had fragmented. In 1980, the big three networks had over 90 percent of all prime-time viewers; by 1990, they could get only 60 percent of the prime-time audience. More than half of all TV sets tuned in to find out who shot J. R. But only a quarter of all viewers watched the Twin Peaks episode that unmasked Laura Palmer's killer.
For 30 years or so, television defined a broad-based popular American culture. But beginning in the '80s, that culture began to break down, dividing into small subcultures, as technology, deregulation, and market demand made it increasingly difficult for the broadcast networks to attract a broad national audience. In turn each of these subcultures influences each other, producing a mainstream culture that is currently evolving at an ever more-rapid rate.
As television enters the 21st century, it offers a variety that viewers never could have imagined when they sat down to watch Jackie Gleason for the first time 45 years ago. The typical viewer has access to 30 channels today, compared to two or three in the early '50s. And these channels offer everything from music videos to soft-core sex films to classic movies.
This diversity has provoked a backlash. On the right, cultural conservatives such as Michael Medved decry the sex, sin, and violence that television brings into their homes. On the left, the type of intellectual who in the '50s complained about television creating a bland, homogenized popular culture now argues that TV is offering too much variety. "Whatever its failings, a mass medium creates a sense of community," writes Ken Auletta in Three Blind Mice. "[T]he public has an investment in the larger public purpose a network can perform…" Each side overstates the dangers of diversity and ignores the benefits from an expanding television universe.
In many ways television is beginning to resemble radio, with a multiplicity of channels serving a large number of specialized tastes. And we can see the future of television by looking at the past of radio. What is particularly interesting about the history of radio is that the musical genres it fostered did not exist in isolation; each form influenced the others, producing new forms of entertainment. And the technology of radio brought the sounds of these diverse musical forms into millions of homes, enhancing and speeding up this process of evolution.
In the '20s and '30s, the CBS and NBC radio networks established themselves as media of mass national culture. Each night families gathered to listen to shows such as Amos 'n' Andy or The Fred Allen Show. Radio was the primary source for news. Along with motion pictures, it determined American tastes in music and drama. And radio helped create a national music—a jazz-based "pop" that appealed to all ages, regions, and races. The networks banned songs that were racy or that might offend some segment of their audience, and they blacklisted controversial artists.
But beginning in the late '40s, technological innovation and changes in federal regulations quickly ended the networks' cultural dominance, much as 40 years later similar changes would cripple the broadcast television networks. The biggest change was the introduction of commercial television broadcasting. TV quickly became the medium of national mass culture. By 1955, over half of all U.S. homes had a television. Families that had previously listened to network dramas and variety shows quickly abandoned radio for similar shows done on television. According to the A. C. Nielsen Co., the average family's daily radio listening dropped by 50 percent between 1948 and 1956, from 4.4 hours to 2.2 hours.
But even as radio's national audience was deteriorating, the FCC was licensing new radio stations at an unprecedented rate. There were 973 radio stations in 1945. By 1950, that number had increased to 2,867; by 1960, there were 4,306 radio stations in the United States.
With the national radio audience dead, radio in the '40s and '50s began to go after niche audiences, bringing new sounds out of urban bars and country honky-tonks. Country music had been on some Southern radio stations for decades, but the many new low-power stations serving rural communities quickly established country as their format. This exposed country artists to millions of more listeners and spurred record sales to new highs. Moreover, this music defied the norms of the dominant "pop" culture. While Frank Sinatra was singing about broken hearts and Bing Crosby was crooning love songs, country artists like Hank Williams were singing earthy songs about adulterous affairs and getting drunk.
Similarly, in Northern cities, radio stations went after a black audience by playing rhythm & blues, the down-and-dirty cousin of jazz. Again, this music explicitly violated the norms of mass culture. Songs such as "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" and "Roll with Me Henry" were full of sexual energy. But programmers didn't have to worry that much about offending mainstream listeners because most of them were watching television.
Of course, the synthesis of blues and country spawned rock, a music form that was vigorously opposed by the mainstream. But by the end of the '50s, many stations were specializing in rock. And as the years went by, musical forms continued to subdivide, and each form had radio stations specializing in it. Today, in Los Angeles, one can find classic rock, progressive rock, country, salsa, ranchero, and rap sharing the radio dial with all-talk and all-news stations.
The history of television over the past 15 years has been remarkably similar to that of radio in the '50s and '60s. Not surprisingly, the first way that cable channels such as HBO tried to distinguish themselves from the networks was by offering more sexually explicit programming. The schedules of HBO and Showtime were—and still are—full of unedited R-rated movies and original programming full of completely gratuitous nudity. This sort of programming cuts at the heart of network television by stealing away the demographic group most prized by advertisers: young urban viewers.
Filmmakers and television programmers have long known that young people tolerate—even demand—a greater degree of sexual explicitness and violence than other groups. As James Baughman notes in his book The Republic of Mass Culture, polls consistently show that young moviegoers want "vivid sex scenes." Young adults' taste for sex and violence has always been a problem for broadcast networks. Young urban professionals have always been the group most valued by advertisers, and young people's demand for sexy or hip programming has always been well-known. The problem for the networks has been how to attract these valued viewers without offending the larger audience.
Back in the '50s, ABC had no such problems. It wasn't attracting a larger audience anyway. The network was a distant third. NBC and CBS had all of the major stars locked up in big-money contracts. Further, because there weren't as many stations then, ABC had to share affiliates in some areas with one of the other two networks. The company gambled that by airing risky programming it could attract young viewers and make a name for itself.
The first of these series was Maverick, starring James Garner. The show looks rather tame by today's standards, but for 1957 it was revolutionary: The protagonist—Brett Maverick—was a coward, a con man, and a professional gambler, not the tall, straight-shootin' hero of the traditional western. Each week writer-producer Roy Huggins satirized all of those traditional values that the western held so dear. Honor, chivalry, integrity—Maverick would have none of that. And it worked. Maverick immediately grabbed the most-prized demographic groups and slowly gained a mass following, cracking the top 10 in its second season and remaining there for the next four years.
The next year, Huggins was back with 77 Sunset Strip, the first of the sexy detective shows. Granted, this was still the '50s, so Stu Bailey and Jeff Spencer were never shown even kissing any of the girls they dated. But the audience was hip enough to figure out what they were doing with that seemingly endless procession of beautiful starlets that passed through their apartments. Later in the decade, ABC brought viewers Ben Casey (a young doctor who in each episode managed at least once angrily to defy the older doctors running his hospital and bare his very hairy, muscular chest) and The Untouchables (still one of the most violent series ever aired).
J. Fred MacDonald notes in his book One Nation Under Television that critics looked at these shows and accused ABC of dumping "garbage onto the rugs of the American people every night." But network executives could weather such criticism. By the '60s, ABC was still in third place, but thanks to sex and violence, it was turning a profit and was a viable network due to its relatively large number of young viewers.
In the early '70s, CBS found itself in a dilemma. It was the number-one network, but it was losing valuable younger viewers to shows such as Laugh In on NBC. So in the 1970 and 1971 seasons, CBS canceled a half dozen country comedies, including The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Hee Haw, and Green Acres. Each of these shows was ranked in the top 20, but their viewers were too rural, too poor, and too old.
These shows were replaced on the week's schedule by daring shows such as All in the Family and M*A*S*H. CBS gambled that if it could attract young viewers, the broader audience would follow. The new shows might offend older, more conservative viewers—certainly these shows were more likely to shock than Green Acres. But what were these viewers going to do—change the channel to Laugh In? In effect, market forces meant that the networks were always pushing the envelope ever so slightly. They needed shows that would titillate but not offend.
But in 1974 the dynamics of network programming changed. That year HBO put its signal on satellite, delivering the network to cable systems all over the United States. A little less than a year later, Ted Turner put his Atlanta television station WTBS on satellite.
The initial programming strategies of these two outlets represented the dilemma that cable would pose for the networks. If some viewers wanted daring, sexy programming, they could buy HBO (and later the Playboy Channel or Showtime) and see all of the bare boobs, raunchy comedians, or violent deaths they could stomach. If, on the other hand, a viewer wanted cleaner, more wholesome entertainment, he could turn to TBS and catch all of those rural comedies canceled a few year earlier by CBS.
Now the networks faced a new dilemma: If they made their programs sexy enough to compete with cable, they would drive away the family audience. If they made them more wholesome, they would lose young viewers to HBO.
The answer to this dilemma was provided by a novice to the American broadcasting world: Rupert Murdoch. In 1986, Murdoch started the Fox network, and he never had any illusions about getting a broad audience. He went after young urban viewers—the people most valued by advertisers. Fox's shows—Married with Children, Studs, A Current Affair, The Simpsons—pushed the envelope of good taste. The housewives of Minnesota were outraged, but they weren't Fox's viewers. A mere five years later, Fox was still the fourth-place network, but it was number one among the demographic groups it had targeted, and Fox was the second most profitable network.
At first, Fox's rise to prominence seems like ABC's rise to profitability in the '50s. But there is a difference. ABC planned to become, and eventually did become, a broad-based network, balancing the tastes of its young urban viewers against those of other, more conservative viewers. Fox shows no signs of reaching out to a broader audience. It has established an identity as the network of young people. If other viewers also happen to like its programs and turn them into mainstream hits—as they have done with The Simpsons, Married with Children, and Beverly Hills 90210—great. But the network still targets its programs solely at young people.
Narrowcasting isn't simply a recipe for more sex and violence, however. It can also give a voice to political, religious, or artistic views that are too conservative for the mainstream. Back when the networks dominated television they had to target their wares to the broadest market. If religion showed up at all, it tended to be safe, moderate, and mainstream; religious figures or views that were controversial or even just marginal had no place on the dial. ABC may have had a place in prime time for Bishop Fulton Sheen, but can one seriously imagine the network airing a show hosted by a Hasidic rabbi or a fundamentalist preacher? But today there are cable shows, and even entire networks, aimed at charismatic Christians, orthodox Jews, Buddhists, and probably some religions that I've never even heard of.
In the past, if television got too sexy, the only choice conservative viewers had was to watch programs that offended them or to give up television. Now if TV watchers find even network programming too sexy or irreverent, they can turn to Pat Robertson's Family Channel and see shows that are wholesome and family oriented.
Indeed, the Family Channel demonstrates the true strengths of cable. Originally, it was a vehicle for Pat Robertson's evangelism, but Robertson and his son Tim saw a market niche that they thought was underserved, so they began devoting more of their programming schedule to family-oriented entertainment. Today, the channel still has The 700 Club, but most of its schedule is filled with shows such as Maniac Mansion and Zorro that are, as Tim Robertson told The Wall Street Journal, "solid entertainment where good guys win, bad guys lose, people aren't engaging in gratuitous sex." (The schedule is not completely unobjectionable; the Family Channel's heavy lineup of westerns makes it one of the most violent spots on the TV dial.)
As people choose other forms of entertainment, the audience for the big three is being whittled to pieces. In 1978, the median rating for a top 20 show was 22.8 (each rating point represents a little more than three-quarters of a million viewers); by 1988 the median rating was 18.8. The numbers for network shows ranked even lower plummeted.
Oddly enough, this worries some on the political left. Ev Dennis, executive director of the Gannett Center for Media Studies argues, "We have shared values that are enhanced by three networks. For the same reason that we don't favor five hundred languages in the country. It does create a national consensus of values and what we think is important."
But America won't be speaking 500 languages. It will be speaking one language with a very expansive vocabulary. Each of these channels will be brought into the home through one medium, allowing viewers to sample a large variety of smaller cultures and add to their lives the elements that appeal to them. Most rap music is now bought by white suburban teens. It's unlikely they would ever have ventured into the Harlem clubs, where rap originated, but once MTV added the genre to its play list, whites fell in love with rap. In turn, Hollywood filmmakers eager to attract young people to their action films have made movie stars out of rappers such as Ice T and Ice Cube.
Meanwhile, the Nashville Network has brought country music into the homes of people who never would have tuned to country radio, fueling the biggest sales the genre has ever had. A new breed of country artists has attracted millions of new fans to the music. But each performer brings his own unique sound to the genre. Travis Tritt draws upon the Southern rock of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band. Dwight Yoakum uses elements of Mexican-American ranchero music. Clint Black incorporates elements of the Southern California rock sound of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.
The result is that the "sound" of country music is bigger and more diverse than it has ever been. But even as country music absorbs other sounds, it has begun to divide. Already some radio stations have begun to specialize in different types of country—easy-listening format for stations serving Northern markets or ranchero-country formats for the Southwest, for example.
Indeed, what is happening in country music is a paradigm for how television will shape the popular culture of the future. New channels will reach out to niche markets. Very often these markets will remain small, but in some cases, millions of viewers will be introduced to a genre of music or a type of filmmaking that they have never seen before. They will adopt it and make it part of the mainstream. But even as this new form of entertainment enters the mainstream, it will be transformed, and its audience will begin to fragment, beginning the cycle anew.
And if viewers aren't energetic enough to sample new forms of entertainment, artists eager for new inspiration and entrepreneurs searching for new products are. Few young girls have been in a transvestite bar, but they all learned how to vogue a few years ago when Madonna brought the dance out of New York after-hours clubs and into her videos.
And while few Americans patronize art-house theaters, they've all now been exposed to the peculiar vision of David Lynch thanks to Twin Peaks. As Twin Peaks demonstrated, particular shows still have the ability to transcend their target audiences and permanently alter mainstream sensibilities.
Of course, this really isn't a new process; it's simply the old story of how popular culture evolves. What is new is the speed at which it will happen. Previously, for example, people could only learn about new music forms by hearing them in nightclubs. Records changed all of that. But people still had to seek out the right records. Now television delivers the latest acts directly into the home, allowing people to absorb and assimilate new types of music more quickly. And easy channel surfing by remote control encourages far more cultural exploration than the radio dial ever produced.
This exploration will lead to an even greater variety of entertainment, as each artist draws upon an expanded universe for inspiration. It also means that fashions will pass much more quickly. Overnight, today's "hot" looks, sounds, and artists will become passé.
But their work will be preserved forever. Paradoxically, evolving video technology also makes it easier for people to remain outside of popular culture when that culture changes in ways that they do not like. When network television entered its "jiggle" phase during the 1970s, with shows such as Charlie's Angels dominating the airwaves, most people had one choice: watch the shows or abandon television. Now if the networks are too sexy, one can turn to TBS or to the Family Channel to watch older, more wholesome TV shows, or one can rent older, more wholesome movies at Blockbuster.
Such alternatives act as a brake when culture begins to change too rapidly. They also act as a tie to our culture's past. Previously, after films had ended their theatrical runs, they could only be seen occasionally at revival houses or on late-night movies. Now, cable channels such as TNT and American Movie Classics deliver a steady stream of old movies into viewers homes, and the corner video store typically has hundreds of old movies on tape. Soon, cable systems will have the capability to provide true pay-per-view movies on demand, allowing subscribers to access any movie on video or any episode of any television series ever made anytime they want simply by picking up their phones.
Again, even if consumers don't actively seek out these choices, artists eager for inspiration will. Already, artists reach back into the past, whether it is Madonna copying the "looks" of Marlene Dietrich or Marilyn Monroe, or Brian de Palma copying visual passages from Alfred Hitchcock films, or Guns 'n' Roses doing remakes of songs by Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan. Making it easier for artists to access old works can only facilitate such sampling.
As America prepares for the 21st century, television's role as the dominant cultural force remains unchallenged. But the networks' domination of television is over. In the future, Americans will not be united by a bland, one-size-fits-all culture. But they will not be divided into multitudes of tiny subcultures either. They will be united by a common cultural bazaar, where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of merchants compete for their attention, and in the end, we will all be tied together by the best that market has to offer.
Charles Oliver writes for Investor's Business Daily.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Box of Babel?".