Having nothing better to do, Katie and I watched the Fox Network's 25th anniversary special on Sunday night. Reliving the past quarter-century of mostly crappy TV shows from Fox made me come to terms with several facts.
I'd forgotten just how crudely drawn and uninteresting The Simpsons was when it debuted. Married ... With Children was and is, in many ways, the ultimate situation comedy. If I live to be 100, I'll never forget the heavenly sight of a 19-year-old Jessica Alba in a leather suit performing kung-fu moves on the short-lived series Dark Angel.
But, mostly, the retrospective showed the progressive idiocy of popular culture in the past 25 years. Fox, both in its entertainment programming and its right-wing propaganda network, has certainly led the way. Popular culture was already dumb enough before Fox came on the air; shows such as Joe Millionaire and Temptation Island were just the prototypes for an entire generation of mind-numbing entertainment to come.
By the time Fox started in 1987, cable TV and home video had already transformed television. Only 10 years before, most Americans had access to only three or four stations, almost all of which went off the air at 1 or 2 a.m. If you missed an episode of your favorite show, too bad. You had to wait months before it was re-run.
It's difficult to argue that television in the 1970s and 1980s was more cerebral and less stupid than today's shows, because there were some truly awful programs back then. The arrival of Fox opened the door for edgier, more controversial series and helped dislodge the last of TV's old guard. Within five years, cable TV was ubiquitous, the power of the Big Three networks had faded and everyone was scrambling to copy Fox's mix of raunchy humor and sordid dramas.
If Fox hadn't done it, someone would have come along and made television even sleazier than it had been. But Rupert Murdoch thought of it first and the past quarter-century of bad reality shows, hyper-sexualized high school drama series and dreadful competition shows like American Idol are its legacy.
Today's youth would find it hard to comprehend a world with limited TV, no Internet and pornography shown only in disgusting, rundown movie theatres. But 30 years ago, that's the way it was. Whether today's environment is better or worse is a subjective matter.
I wonder how many people would trade the communication and entertainment options of 2012 for those of 1977 or 1987, if such a thing were possible. How many people would forego watching cat videos on YouTube and posting status updates on Facebook in exchange for no cable bills, no Internet service charges and no cell phone bills?
Having watched the evolution in communications quite closely over the years, what strikes me most is how people now use technology to defer, or even avoid completely, the simple act of communication. When I was growing up, if the phone rang, somebody had to answer it no matter who it was. Turning off the ringer was possible but not done very often.
Now, most people I know use their cell phones to avoid having to talk to anyone at all. Their phones are set on vibrate and if the caller ID shows an unfamiliar or unwanted number, it doesn't get answered. I have thousands of unused rollover minutes myself because I use my phone for texting, email and surfing, not talking.
Television? It was free for my parents but I pay more than $100 a month to watch my two or three favorite shows and to monitor breaking news events. For that price, I can watch unlimited amounts of reality shows and bad movies from every era. Netflix delivers the same thing, only on demand.
For something that was supposed to bring us all together, modern communications have fragmented us into micro-genres from which most of us never stray. Newspapers and vintage television had their limitations but at least it was a shared experience for all segments of society.
The news I get is not the same news that my next-door neighbors get. When Walter Cronkite said, as he did each time his CBS Nightly News broadcast concluded, "And that's the way it is," he might have been lying, but it was all of the news any of us was going to get.
The news now, both on TV and online, is designed to reinforce the beliefs I already have.
Fox News makes hundreds of millions telling people how the president is a secret Muslim devoted to destroying America but the news I read and watch says something different entirely.
The Fox entertainment network had the good timing to come along right at the beginning of that trend and helped foster it to the jumbled mishmash we have today, where nobody is ever exposed to anything they don't want. Whether that's a good or bad thing, again, is in the eye of the beholder.