The ‘Who Watches Mad Men?’ Effect
Pretty much nobody, Richard Lawson says. We gave up on it in our house. It had been forever since the previous season, and we missed this season’s premiere because we were gone somewhere and forgot to set the DVR. When we tried to catch it online, our crappy wi-fi wouldn’t let us. We didn’t care at that point. The long time between seasons, thanks to Matthew Weiner’s drama-queening, allowed us to quit caring about these characters.
Lawson’s point is that while the viewership of “Mad Men” is tiny, it receives a wildly disproportionate amount of press coverage. This is even more true with the new HBO show “Girls”. Here’s Lawson:
That is, we guess, the way with “cool” things. Why talk about all the broad popularity of NCIS or The Big Bang Theorywhen there’s some seemingly “indie” show, something complicated and smart that you can be all about instead? There’s an assumption that if a show like NCIS does so well then a lot of people, somewhere, must be writing about it, so we should cover something smaller and lesser known. Only that thinking has proven wholly unoriginal, and so we get buried under a mountain of coverage for the assumedly overlooked shows, resulting in weeks’ worth of coverage of a show that only 875,000 people watched in its initial airing. (That was Girls‘ number before being combined with a later rebroadcast.) That’s ridiculous! That’s totally silly. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
Well, eh, no not really. What analysis is there really to be done of NCIS? Yes we recently advocated that people write about these less-heralded shows, so now saying it’s boring to do so might be a bit flip-floppy (we’re with ya, Mitt!), but it remains true. There’s nothing to say about an old, mass appeal show like NCIS and there’s nothing to say about a new, slightly less mass appeal show like, say, The Finder. Or at least it can seem that way from this vantage point.
He has a point. Who wears haute couture from the New York and Paris runways? Nobody you or I know. Yet there’s a lot of press attention paid to those runway shows because it has been well-established that whatever happens on those runways will inevitably filter down to the masses. The future happens on those runways. Uncountably more people wear clothes from, say, Banana Republic, but there’s not a lot new to say about what the mass consumer wears.
Similarly with movies. When I was a professional film critic, I had to see most everything that came out — between five to 10 movies a week, and sometimes more at the end of the year. Most of it was junk, or at least no better than mediocre. I learned early on why critics overpraise, or at least give more attention to, edgy stuff: because most filmmaking is so boring, so been-there-done-that, that when you see something new and interesting, you get really excited. To be fair, though, very few people see as many movies as professional film critics do. It was very easy for us to get bored with trends, because by the time we’d seen our tenth movie exploring a particular trend, we were sick of it. The ordinary moviegoer, though, will not have had that level of exposure, and might still find it interesting.
It’s also the case that a professional critic — TV, film, whatever — has trained his or her mind to be critical, to be analytical. This is what they’re supposed to be doing. But most people don’t see TV or movies like this. After I quit the critic’s beat, it was a long time before I was able to turn off my hypercritical mind when sitting in a movie theater, and simply enjoy the movie without thinking hard about it.
I don’t want to make too much of this. “Mad Men” was, at least for a while, a really innovative, interesting drama (it may still be, I dunno). It’s relative lack of popularity may say very little about its quality, and quite a lot about the limits of mass consumer taste. Fifty skrillion more people drink Budweiser than drink craft beers. All the interesting stuff in American beermaking is happening at the craft level. What is there to say about Budweiser?
You get the point. And yet, I wonder about this same dynamic applied to the coverage of religion in America. Unlike the arts, fine dining, beermaking, etc., religion is not about connoisseurship and innovation. Yet if one follows the mainstream media’s coverage of religion, one generally sees a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the kinds of religion stories that are conventionally interesting than to the kind of religion stories that reflect how many, even most, religious Americans live. The Episcopal Church, for example, is the “Mad Men” of American religion. Slightly more people watch “Mad Men” on a given week than belong to the Episcopal Church, which has about 2 million members, and steadily falling. There are vastly more people in suburban megachurches on a given Sunday than in Episcopal parishes. Yet who gets the media attention? Part of this is because TEC really is and has been at the forefront of a huge religion story: the way churches are splitting on the subject of homosexuality. What was pretty much only an Episcopal phenomenon 15 or 20 years ago is now unquestionably mainstream.
My guess, though, is that the disproportionate press attention paid to TEC’s Sturm and Drang has as much to do with what interests the people in newsrooms who decide what’s news. Newsrooms, as has been firmly established, are highly secular places. They are also places where one’s progressive bona fides are not established by one’s position on economic issues, but on culture-war issues, especially on sexuality. This is why the Pope can talk all day long about the poor, or about peacemaking, and the US press is ho-hum about it. But let him say something about sex, and it’s stop-the-presses time.
Anyway, I’m generalizing, but it’s still interesting to think about why certain things, and certain issues, get covered by the media, and others don’t. At one newspaper where I worked, the suburban bureaus were considered to be Siberia. I know I would have considered them Siberia had I been a reporter and not a critic. Yet that’s where the majority of our subscribers lived. Reporters, in general, were more interested in covering news involving people who for the most part didn’t buy our paper, and didn’t live where most of the people who did buy our paper lived. When it comes to criticizing and covering the arts (including the gastronomic arts), at some point, you have to find a good balance between mass taste and what creative minorities are up to. When it comes to covering the news, you similarly have to find a good balance between writing about the everyday stuff that your subscribers care about, and bringing them news about communities, institutions, or public/private figures they may not know about, but ought to. That involves a certain connoisseurship as well.