We don’t actually have a water cooler on our floor at the newspaper, so we don’t have that traditional crossroads to stand at to swap office gossip, discuss the latest cultural icons and of course speculate on the plot twists and turns of the hottest new television shows.
Instead, we all just wander out of our cubicles periodically and begin to strike up a conversation that may or may not invest the interest of the editorial and production denizens who dwell therein.
I, of course, can hear snippets of these whilst pausing for the muse to strike me as I try to fill the endless white space around the advertisements in our pages each week – feeding the beast, I call it.
In the old days, the newsroom would have rows of desks two abutting (and sans those portable cubicle cells) so that there was always a buzz about the huge room – muted phone interviews, hushed conversations about a story and the incessant clicking of computer keyboards – yes, we used computers even in my early days. There would even be a thin blue haze of cigarette smoke wafting near the ceiling marking the newsroom as one of the last bastions against the Surgeon General.
And then someone would stand up, stretch and say did you see what so-and-so did on “Seinfeld” last night? People would look over or perhaps stand up themselves and join in the discourse. But not me.
Even then, I was something of a cultural outcast, having never watched “Seinfeld.” It wasn’t that I didn’t think “Seinfeld” was funny. I actually watched quite a number of episodes when it went into syndication.
And I give him credit for giving us such cultural icons as the “Soup Nazi” and the “mansiere.” But I was never that interested in the self-absorbed lives of a bunch of New Yorkers (ditto “Friends”). Even as huge as “Seinfeld” was then, and it was huge, I couldn’t order my life around one 30-minute time slot so that I could be “in tune” with the conversation the next day.
Shoot, I’m still trying to figure out who shot J.R.
So when the buzz around the cubicles started to draw more and more voices talking about the “the Governor,” I thought now here is something different, they’re actually talking about news.
So I sauntered over to see if there was an interesting factoid that might be gleaned from the conversation. But I was completely disappointed. It turned out “the Governor” of whom they were gleefully dissecting character flaws was indeed a character – from something called “The Walking Dead.”
When I wrinkled my brow, I was quickly informed that this is or was the most popular cable TV program in the country and “the Governor” may or may not be an avaricious blood-sucking zombie.
“Aha,” I thought. “Once again art imitates life.”
So I was given a communal briefing by my co-workers on the various plot lines of “The Walking Dead” and then I went back to my desk feeling just a little more culturally isolated than normal.
I was of the first generation that grew up on television. But it was one with three national networks and maybe a local UHF station showing grainy old black-and-white movies – which was no big deal since everything on TV was in black and white.
TV then was the great leveler of culture. “Father knew best” the same way in Tifton, Kokomo and Hackensack – and on the same night each week. Like the shopping mall, TV acted as a homogenizing agent for the country. It was a shared experience we all related to. TV was the mirror of the country held up to our faces so we could see ourselves reflected.
But with the advent of cable, the mirror cracked. Now hundreds of little facets reflect their images back to smaller and smaller segments of society that we are only aware tangentially as we surf the waves of cable.
“Iron Chef” coexists with “Wives with Knives”; “Pawn Stars” lives near “Whisker Wars.” Cable now parses our interests and distills them into the most grotesque pictures of American life – I give you “Honey Boo Boo.”
So where TV once seemed to bring us together, cable (or satellite) now separates us. Where will it all end? Tune in next week for the next exciting episode.