Announcements that networks make about viewership are like announcements that rich people make about the gold coins they swim in every night: kinda true, but fuzzy at the edges. Even so, viewership data suggests a huge audience saw Sunday’s Super Bowl — 200 million people watched at least some part of it.
Most TV programming has seen audiences melt away like a witch under a bucket of water. Broadcast shows, cable shows, and special events like the Oscars and Emmys* are not what they once were.** But the Super Bowl seems to be immune. There is still this one old-school mass-viewership experience, the storied water-cooler topic (which is now, maybe, the “refill your Stanley tumbler” topic). Despite the ad-filled spectacle (and the spectacle-filled ads) and the growing queasiness, so many people have about CTE and off-the-field violence and exploitation of labor, this one thing is hanging on.
It’s tempting to feel nostalgic about the myth of the monoculture, the idea you sometimes see that at one time “we all” watched certain TV shows, or “we all” shared touchstones. And there are moments, smaller ones than the Super Bowl, where the charms of cultural commonality do press themselves forward. One came just last week after Tracy Chapman duetted with Luke Combs on “Fast Car” at the Grammys. While Twitter is a desiccated husk of what it once was, there were still social spaces where people could share a swell of appreciation for her. For her smile, for her eyes, for the unique texture of her voice, and for the memory of how fresh and different that song felt when it shared space on the pop charts in 1988 with “Simply Irresistible” and “Nobody’s Fool (Theme From Caddyshack II).”
But that’s not really what the Super Bowl is; it doesn’t lend itself to that brand of nostalgia, even when shared. Unless you’re a fan of a team, who was invested in the outcome itself such that you retell the stories of greatness or defeat over and over while happily or miserably drunk, the likelihood of a game becoming part of your library of references in the same way “Fast Car” was, or the M*A*S*H finale was, seems small. Instead, it’s about the moment when an extra point is missed or Patrick Mahomes runs the ball himself on fourth and short. It’s all real, but Tracy Chapman is indelible, while that stuff is ephemeral.
Besides, cultural commonality doesn’t come from the enormous size of an audience but from the ability to find the people in it. Once upon a time, sheer audience mass was the easiest way to increase your odds of colliding with someone else who saw what you saw. After all, no matter how many people were watching Dallas, any person would only ever talk to a few of them. And you still can! The water cooler was just a place where you bumped into generally thirsty people; now, you can find specifically thirsty people by looking online for them. In fact, one of the ways Twitter got desiccated-husk-ified in the first place is that algorithms made it harder and harder to choose what you saw and to find your targets.
The monoculture was always bogus anyway. Everybody did not watch Seinfeld. Everybody did not watch Friends. In fact, some “everybodies” pointed out that it owed an awful lot to Living Single.
We don’t really need mass consumption of the same cultural work, just smart and connected consumption. And not just with television, either. There’s an extraordinary novel out today called The Book of Love by Kelly Link. It’s almost 700 pages long. It’s fantasy, full of magic and wizards and goddesses, but it’s also about high school and has a sensitive Freaks and Geeks/My So-Called Life vibe. I don’t need everybody to read it. I need to be able to find people who read it, with whom I can share my extensive theories about it. Is this too much to ask?
Sure, it’s impressive — or at least surprising — that the Super Bowl continues to defy so many viewership trends. But past a certain point, what has value isn’t mustering enormous audiences; it’s connecting smart ones who know how to find each other. That is enough to give you those “remember this song?” moments and “remember this episode?” moments, all that you’ll ever need.
* I regret to inform you that according to the Chicago Tribune, 69 million people watched the Miss America pageant in 1961.
** This was literally the very first thing I ever wrote about for the blog I started for NPR in 2008!