As I consider the cultural significance of this year's Academy Awards ceremony, my attention has not been captured by the Best Picture winner—which strikes me as a weird amalgam of Water World, Beauty and the Beast (TV version), and Avatar, with a dash of Roswell thrown in for good measure—but by something quite external to the event. Yes, I'm referring to the clamor over the 20% television ratings drop that has been lighting up the airwaves.
Fortune blames the drop off on "the rapidly-changing viewing habits of TV audiences, more and more of whom are choosing to stream their favorite content online (including on social media) rather than watching live on TV," as does Vulture and NPR, more or less. They're probably right, at least in part. Other explanations cite the lack of any real blockbusters among the Best Picture nominees this year (Fortune), as well as the Jimmy Kimmel twopeat as Master of Ceremonies (Fortune). But the really big story involves what might be regarded as the transformation of the Nielson ratings into a kind of Gallup Poll.
Consider in this regard the Fox News angle on the story: "Oscars ratings are down, and ABC's lack of control over the Academy may be to blame." Or Breitbart's exultation over the low numbers. And, of course, the President's morning after tweet. In each case (and many others), the fallout from the fall off is attributed to voter—I mean viewer—disgust with the "elitist" and "liberal" tendencies of the Academy, which is now getting its comeuppance.
Is it? I don't know: a thorough analysis of the numbers seems to be in order, and I would expect that the ABC brass at the very least will be conducting one in an attempt to preserve their ad revenues. In my own view, whatever caused the ratings drop is certainly overdetermined, with multiple forces combining to reduce television viewership not only of the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl but of traditional televised media as a whole. Certainly Fortune, Vulture and NPR are correct about the effect of the digital age on American viewing habits, but, given the leading role that Hollywood has played in the resistance to the Trump presidency, a deeper exploration of the possibility of a growing resistance to the resistance as evidenced in television viewing preferences could shed some light on emerging trends within the culture wars in this country.
Of course, the Fox News (et.al) take on the matter could prove to be fake news in the end, but even should that happen, the fact that the ratings drop could be so easily exploited for political purposes is itself significant. There are a number of takeaways from this. The first can be found in a Washington Post blog entitled "Trump is supercharging the celebrification of politics." The Post blog surveys an intensification of a cultural process that has been the core premise of nine editions of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: namely, that the traditional division between "high" culture and "low" (or workaday and recreational) in America is being replaced by a single "entertainment culture" that permeates our society from end to end. The transformation has been going on for a long time, but Trump has intensified it.
But as the hoohah over the Academy Awards television viewership decline demonstrates, this entertainment culture is not a common culture: Americans are lining up on two sides of a popular cultural divide that matches an ideological one, with Fox News audiences lined up against MSNBC's, and innumerable other viewership dichotomies (Duck Dynasty, say, vs. Mad Men) indicating just how wide the culture gap has grown. So now we're counting audience numbers for such once broad-appeal spectacles as the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards to see which side is "winning." This is a new normal indeed, and it is indicative of a country that is tearing apart.
But then again, the same Post blog that I've cited above reports that the most read Washington Post story for the day in which the blog appeared concerned "the season finale of The Bachelor”—a TV event that really put the soap into soap opera. So maybe there actually is something of world-historic importance for Americans to rally 'round after all.