Looking back 30 years to the dawn of Adweek time, we expect to see massive changes in technology, demographics, social mores and so on. And in most respects, this turbulent timespan has not disappointed. Surely, then, the content of pop culture-notoriously the most disposable, ephemeral stuff on the planet-should be nearly unrecognizable from one of those decades to the next.
But that's what odd. Compared to other big-deal aspects of modern life, pop culture of the past 30 years has been characterized by a remarkable degree of continuity-or, some would say, pathetic immobility. People may listen to Madonna now via satellite radio or MP3 download as they drive their hybrid cars to exurbs that weren't on the map 30 years ago. But it's still Madonna. And such stasis is evident in all sorts of genres when you start to examine the entertainment that has most engaged people during this period. While the face of American life has weathered in many ways during those three decades, people's favorites in the world of entertainment (from music to movies to sports) seem fixed in place as if by a kind of cultural Botox.
Stephen King to Madonna
Underlying this continuity of taste is an even more basic consistency in people's preferences in the way they spend their free time (whether on pop culture or on other pastimes). Pluralities of survey respondents over the years have identified reading, of all things, as their favorite leisure-time activity. In a series of Harris Interactive polls dating back to 1995, for instance, reading has beat TV viewing (the consistent runner-up) by an average of 8 percentage points. The most recent such poll, fielded in October 2007, showed 29 percent of respondents picking reading, while 18 percent chose TV viewing. The only other activity scoring in double digits that year was "spending time with family/kids" (14 percent), though "computer activities" (at 9 percent) came close. In a separate Harris survey, conducted this past March, 37 percent of the respondents said they had read at least 10 books in an average year.
When it comes to Americans' taste in fictional reading material, the best-seller list tends to tell the same story over and over again. Between the two of them, Stephen King and Danielle Steele have had nearly 60 books atop The New York Times' list during the past three decades, according to Hawes Publications, which catalogs the Times' top picks. Tom Clancy is another writer with multiple No. 1 books in each of those three decades. Mary Higgins Clark and Dean Koontz made their debuts atop the list in the 1980s and have been there multiple times in the 1990s and the current decade. Brand loyalty may have wilted when it comes to cars and soft drinks and laundry detergent, but it's curiously robust when it comes to hardcover fiction. Marketers often pay lip service to "storytelling" about their brands, but maybe they ought to take the practice more seriously.
The pop-music market has its own distinctive structure, but there's a similar pattern at the top of it, with long-established stars like Madonna turning up on the charts and the rankings of top-grossing tours decade after decade. Her album Hard Candy topped the Billboard pop chart earlier this year, a mere quarter-century after her single "Holiday" pushed into the top 40. For that matter, when Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones had singles among Billboard's top 20 in 1978 -- "Lay Down Sally" for Clapton at No. 15, one slot ahead of "Miss You" for the Stones -- they'd already been in the limelight for more than a decade. (For those of you awaiting a mention of Bruce Springsteen, his "Born to Run" was almost oldies material by 1978, having come out three years earlier.)
Of course, for all the stability in the upper ranks of the star structure, part of the fun of pop music lies in seeing bands and solo acts have their moment of fame and then vanish forever. There's been no shortage of that in the past three decades. Who among us will ever forget Savage Garden and their eponymous album, which made it onto Billboard's top-20 list in 1998? (What, you mean you have forgotten?) One might say the same of Tiffany in 1988 (with an eponymous album in the top 10). Or of Peter Brown, whose album Fantasy Love Affair made the top 20 in 1978, a few slots down from Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell. (This was in the days, some readers will fondly recall, when The New York Times called Meat Loaf "Mr. Loaf" on second reference.)
Indiana Jones to 'American Idol'
A similar pattern is evident when one examines Americans' taste in movies and movie stars during the past 30 years, with people demonstrating a long-term attachment to cinematic franchises. Movies in the Star Wars series, for example, have been among the box-office champions in every decade starting with the 1970s. (Its Revenge of the Sith incarnation in 2005 sold more than $100 million in tickets on its opening weekend of domestic release, according to Nielsen data, and ended up grossing more than $380 million in this country.) The Indiana Jones franchise had a couple of movies in the box-office top 10 in the early 1980s-and it's still alive and well, as evidenced by this year's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. For all the brushes with death he endures in these action-packed movies, Jones seems likely to outlive us all. Nor is he a Hollywood rarity. In an Internet Movie Database listing of the all-time U.S. box-office leaders, an outright majority of movies among the top 25 are part of series.
Americans have been similarly unfickle when it comes to their taste in movie stars. One telling bit of evidence in this regard: In a Harris Poll released this past January, John Wayne ranked No. 6 when respondents were asked, "Who is your favorite movie star?" Wayne died in 1979, having appeared in his last movie in 1976 (The Shootist). As recently as 1995, he'd ranked No. 1 in this recurring Harris survey. Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks (ranked at No. 1 and No. 2 in the most recent poll) have been in the top 10 nearly every year since Harris began conducting these surveys in 1994. Sean Connery, who's been around so long that one imagines him having made his debut in silent films, has also had a consistent presence in the Harris surveys' top 10 (most recently in a tie for seventh place). Julia Roberts, who won America's heart back in 1990 as the prostitute-next-door in Pretty Woman, still reigns as the top-rated actress in this poll (at No. 4 overall).
Thanks to syndication, TV is uniquely suited to slowing the pace of change as it keeps old shows alive year after year. In this medium, it's tempting to say that change over the past three decades has resided less in the content of the programming than in the size of the audience for any given show. Among the TV series that enjoyed top-rated status in one or more seasons during the 1980s and 1990s were Dallas, Dynasty, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Cheers, Home Improvement, Seinfeld, ER and (in a thoroughly different genre) 60 Minutes. Ratings in the current TV decade have been dominated by CSI and American Idol.
But "top-rated" is a relative term. All in the Family led the pack from September 1978 to April 1979 with an average rating of 30.5, according to Nielsen data. The Cosby Show was tops from September 1988 to April 1989, with an average rating of 25.3. For the period September 1998 to May 1999, ER led the ratings race, at 17.8. And the top show for September 2007 to May 2008, American Idol, had a rating of 15.5. If this trajectory continues, we can forecast that the top-rated TV show in the year 2078 will have an audience of six people and a dog.
Thirty years ago, a show could be in the middle of the ratings pack but have an audience large enough to constitute critical mass for those proverbial water-cooler conversations the day after it aired. Thanks to the downward shift that has occurred since then in the ratings for any given show, there is now scarcely such a thing as a non-hit program that plays a discernible role in the national conversation.
In contrast to the pattern for regular TV shows, telecasts of the Super Bowl have held up quite well, which helps explain why the cost of a 30-second spot during the game keeps rising. (It was $185,000 in 1978, and $2.7 million this past February.) Though there has been some slippage in ratings, it has been relatively modest, from a 45.3 average for the 1980s to 43.1 for the 1990s to 41.4 so far in the current decade.
.J. to 'SI'
With all due respect to each season's eagerly awaited Super Bowl commercials, the consistently high ratings for the game are likely more reflective of Americans' continuing attachment to sports than to advertising. One sign of this: For all the talk about baseball's inexorable loss of status as "national pastime," attendance has nearly doubled since 1978, reaching 78.6 million this year. And it's not just a matter of league expansion pushing up the totals, as average attendance per game has risen by about two-thirds. (Minor-league baseball chipped in an attendance total of 43.3 million this past season, an all-time record.) Though there aren't statistics to prove it, it's a safe bet that "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is among the 10 most-sung songs in the country each year.
It's true, though, that football has entrenched itself during the past 30 years as Americans' favorite sport. Dating back to 1985, Harris Interactive has conducted a recurring poll that asks adults to pick the one sport they regard as their favorite. In the first of those surveys, pro football beat baseball by a single percentage point (24 percent vs. 23 percent) for top honors. In the most recent poll (conducted this past January), pro football led baseball by 30 percent to 15 percent. Indeed, college football, scoring 12 percent of the vote, was within striking range of baseball. Auto racing had a modest 5 percent of the tally in 1985 and was still in single digits 10 years ago, at 7 percent. But it has registered in double digits in much of the current decade (scoring a 10 most recently), and has zoomed past men's pro basketball (which registered just 4 percent of the vote in the most recent survey). That latter sport hasn't quite recovered from the retirement of Michael Jordan.
Speaking of The Michael, Harris has also asked people in most years since 1993 to name their favorite sports star. Jordan was the No. 1 pick in every poll until 2006-three years after he'd retired for good as a player-when he slipped to No. 2. (The new No. 1 is, of course, Tiger Woods, though we'll have to see whether he has Jordan's staying power as recuperation from surgery keeps him off the golf course.) Jordan came in third in last year's poll and second in this year's. Having come into the NBA in the 1984-85 season, he would probably have topped the voting a few more times had this series of surveys begun earlier. His appearances in multiple commercials during the past three decades added to his pop-culture resilience, making him a familiar figure to people who don't know a 24-second clock from a sundial.
If Americans have been conspicuously loyal when it comes to sports stars, the same is true in their choice of favorite pro-football teams. In almost-annual Harris polling since 1998 among adults who follow the sport, the Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers have owned the No. 1 spot every year except 2006, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were tops. Along the same lines, the New York Yankees have dominated the rankings for favorite baseball team in Harris polls dating back to 1999. Only the Atlanta Braves have blemished the Yankees' record (in 1999).
You can read about all these teams and stars in Sports Illustrated, naturally. But you might have become a devotee of that magazine (once a year, anyhow) without ever reading a word about a team or a sport. It's fair to say, after all, that the most eagerly awaited magazine each year during the past several decades has been the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. SI's swimsuit franchise considerably predates Adweek (which has yet to publish a swimsuit issue, though it might be worth a shot), with the first one having appeared in 1964. For those of you keeping score at home, the 1978 cover model was Maria Joao (accompanying the cover line, "The Beauties of Brazil"). Elle Macpherson was on the 1988 cover (headlined "Thailand Fling"), Heidi Klum on 1998's ("Crossing the line-Heidi Klum straddles the Equator") and Marisa Miller on 2008's ("Barely Bikinis," and they weren't kidding).
Over the decades, the swimsuit issue has morphed from a simple magazine feature into a multimedia phenomenon. If you're not the sort who buys magazines, you can get in on the spectacle by watching TV shows about it, going to SI Web sites -- whatever suits you. That's in keeping with the often-stated notion that consumers have taken control of the content they view, particularly when it comes to TV shows and other varieties of video. In important respects, though, this shift predated the advent of Internet video downloading, TiVo and other exotic technologies.
It was really in the 1980s that Americans en masse first took on the role of programmer, whether through use of their VCRs for taping and time-shifting TV shows or through renting movies at the neighborhood video store. By 1988, 59 percent of households had a VCR, according to Nielsen figures, with the number exceeding 90 percent by the time the DVD player took over that niche. Also in 1988, 43 percent of VCR households were renting tapes on a weekly basis, according to Alexander & Associates figures.
In other words, by the time the Internet became a household fixture, millions of Americans had already ceased to be passive recipients of whatever the TV and cable channels happened to be telecasting at any given moment. In the grand scheme of things, Internet-age technologies have simply expanded people's ability to do something they'd been doing for a while.
The decline of unplugged pursuits
While the content of pop culture has been surprisingly stable, there has been an important shift in the degree to which it impinges on other leisure-time pursuits. Most notably, as the Internet and other technologies (including video games, now a major adult time-waster) have yielded new screens at which people can stare for hours on end, Americans have become increasingly disengaged from the natural world.
An article this past February in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented a decline in outdoor activities during the past three decades, as reflected in data on per capita visits to state and national parks, issuance of fishing licenses and so on. Its analysis of the data shows that leading forms of nature-based recreation peaked in the 1980s and have been declining ever since. Indeed, the article concludes, "all major lines of evidence point to a general and fundamental shift away from people's participation in nature-based recreation." And it suggests that the likely "root cause" of this cultural shift is "videophilia," as the authors call people's fascination with video games, TV, the Internet and so on.
The technological spread of popular culture has also taken a toll on not-so-popular culture. Other things being equal, one would expect the rise in percentage of Americans with college educations to be accompanied by a rise in the percentage who go to the opera, visit art museums, read poetry and so on. However, a series of surveys by the National Endowment for the Arts (conducted in 1982, 1992 and 2002) finds only spotty evidence of any such trend.
There was a rise between 1982 and 1992 in the proportion of people who reported having visited an art museum or gallery in the previous 12 months, from 22.1 percent to 26.7 percent, though it then dropped a fraction between 1992 and 2002, to 26.5 percent. And there was a slight uptick in the percentage who attended a jazz performance, from 9.6 percent in 1982 to 10.6 percent in 1992 to 10.8 percent in 2002. (Jazz musicians must often wish the genre hadn't been promoted from the ranks of pop culture to the status of a high-culture art form.)
But the proportion who went to a classical concert was on a steadily downward trajectory (13 percent in 1982, 12.5 percent in 1992, 11.6 percent in 2002). So was the proportion who said they had read plays, poetry, novels and/or short stories during the previous 12 months (56.9 percent in 1982, 54 percent in 1992, 46.7 percent in 2002). Meanwhile, the numbers for ballet, opera and non-musical plays showed negligible movement over those decades, while the trend for musical plays was a bit downward. Until someone stages an operatic version of Grand Theft Auto, the trend is unlikely to reverse its direction.
6 months ago