There was a time, not so long ago, when we, as a society, watched a whole lot more of a whole lot less. The biggest threat to “mainstream” television was cable, and the majority of people got their media from one of four networks. Media still came to us directly from the big networks and over the airwaves.
Despite the ability to use the VCR it was still mostly appointment television. If you wanted to watch something you, and everybody else, showed up to your television when it was broadcast. And then everybody talked about it the next day. If you missed it… well maybe you would catch a rerun.
Over the next two decades that kind of media hierarchy was smashed. With the rise of the DVD, Tivo, and the Internet, by the end of the 90s you could start to see the beginnings of a new way of experiencing content. These days, it’s hard to remember what it felt like to have to chase after your favorite show.
But with that freedom has come a shattering of the audience. As its become easier to get what we want when we want it, it has also become almost impossible for the corporations to drive our tastes from the top down. Combining that with the ability to easily get a constant stream of specific behind the scenes information, we’ve moved into world where not only do we no longer have to take what we’re given, but can actually band together and lobby for exactly what we want.
That’s great for the consumer, but it also means that informing your audience about the media you think they’d like has become that much more difficult. How do you get an audience to show up when you can’t just tell them where to be, or even be sure that they’ll be interested in watching television at all when there’s so many blogs to read and video games to play?
But the corpse of the good old days of big media is still warm. Anyone over thirty will still have fond memories of television as a group event shared with family and friends. They can still remember a time where “everybody” was talking about what happened on their favorite show last night.
And so, the media from that era still bask in that warm nostalgic glow of cultural awareness. A time when kitsch was king because everybody had seen “I Dream of Genie” or “Gilligan’s Island”. Shows from the pre-Internet era have power because they come with built in cultural awareness. And that translates directly into marketing leverage. The audience may not be intimately familiar with Battlestar Galactica, but the vague memory, along with the ability to experience the source material on a DVD, means that you’re going to have a built in audience when you turn the seventies chestnut into a gritty remake for the new millennium.
These old shows, movies, and characters, have become a cultural resource of sorts: Mineable, exploitable, and most importantly, limited. And so we get The Sarah Conner Chronicles, pushing not only the show, but the idea of a “viewing party”, where you can get your friends together and have a shared cultural experience just like they used to do back in the old days.
Over on his blog, Warren Ellis has been talking about “looking for a 21st century fiction“. And there’s definitely something coming. After all we can only mine the corpse of our past for so long.
Not only are we running out of any kind of quality “classic” shows from which to remake new media, but you can only tap a reflex so many times before it starts to become annoying. Tweaking the audience’s nostalgic memories of “simpler days” where we had to sit back and absorb whatever culture came down from our masters is nostalgia isn’t going to keep working for a generation that knows nothing of media history beyond what they can absorb from a YouTube clip.