Kelly Ripa informs her “Live With Regis & Kelly” audience how she killed four hours last week while coloring her hair. Wearing a guilty look, she confesses to spending two hours watching VH1’s “I Love the ’80s.”
Whether it’s shoppers in the checkout line sneaking peaks at the National Enquirer or David Letterman poking fun at Britney Spears’ quickie marriage, pop culture has become an easy laugh for comics and a cheap ratings-grabber for cable networks.
Is it only a matter of time before the broadcast networks turn to the genre as an expansion of its successful foray beyond pricey scripted programming with reality shows?
“We just may be at the advent of a new programming genre,” says Lauren Zalaznick, president of Trio, which brands itself as a pop culture channel. “It’s still real new, and cable does things first, out of economic necessity.”
Modern-day reality shows emerged with MTV’s “The Real World” in 1992, so it could take some time for cable’s newfound obsession with all things pop to permeate a mass-audience medium — if the genre doesn’t burn out by cannibalizing itself with arch self-reference.
Americans are eating up pop culture so hungrily that Woody Thompson, producer of “Pop-Up Video” terms it “TV crack” — a description that applies to network and viewer alike. And it’s good business: Thompson is developing “Pop-Up Culture” for VH1 in which he attempts to link, in his usual ironic fashion, such disparate touchstones as Loni Anderson and the space shuttle.
It seems almost every network — from the Food Channel to Discovery — has jumped on the bandwagon, notes Syracuse University professor of pop culture Robert Thompson (no relation to Woody), adding that the genre also encompasses topics such as highways, food and fashion, although he says celebrities is its “top tier.”
Crazes did not start with J.Lo, of course. P.T. Barnum’s 19th-century singing sensation Jenny Lind and, 100 years ago, the race horse Dan Patch were overexposed long before Madonna.
But, notes Thompson, in a media-saturated world with hundreds of channels, shows like VH1’s “Fabulous Life of . . .” and “Greatest Movie Gadgets” on the History Channel are “one of the only things that has permeated (society) enough, that we all have in common, that you don’t have to say much more than ‘Brad and Jen,’ and it peaks your interest.”
Keeping it fresh
While Woody Thompson and VH1 specialize in gently deriding the culture, Zalaznick’s Trio takes a more studied approach that attempts to put iconic incidents in perspective in an objective, democratic fashion that puts final judgments in the hands of viewers. Rather than mock Spears’ mock marriage, she says, Trio will entertain viewers with a history of such annulments.
“I want to similarly reflect the culture, but more importantly interpret for my viewers and influence my viewers, show them something they haven’t noticed before,” Zalaznick says.
But Syracuse’s Robert Thompson sees some ecological troubles ahead for the VH1s of the world. “We are clear-cutting the pop cultural past a lot faster than we are reforesting it,” he warns. “Now we’re getting to the point where some of the most distinctive and memorable culture is repackaged culture.”
That means television will soon have nothing left to celebrate but shows like “I Love the ’80s,” and future generations will fondly recall not icons like Ralph Malph, but rather Michael Black making fun of the long-running TV series “Happy Days.”
The consensus culture is fading: With mediocre shows like “Yes Dear” permeating the top 10 list nowadays, there may soon be little of value left to mock -- or in Trio’s case, study.