How Netflix Is Deepening Our Cultural Echo Chambers
By Farhad Manjoo
Jan 11 2017
When “One Day at a Time” started its run on CBS in December 1975, it became an instant hit and remained so for almost a decade.
In its first year, “One Day at a Time,” a sitcom about working-class families produced by the TV impresario Norman Lear, regularly attracted 17 million viewers every week, according to Nielsen. Mr. Lear’s other comedies were even bigger hits: One out of every three households with a television watched “All in the Family,” for instance.
Last week, a new version of “One Day at a Time” started on Netflix. Critics praised the remake for its explorations of single parenthood and class struggle, a theme that has faded from TV since Mr. Lear’s heyday.
Yet, well intentioned and charming as the new streaming version may be, there’s a crucial aspect of the old “One Day at a Time” that it will almost certainly fail to replicate: broad cultural reach.
The two versions of “One Day at a Time” are noteworthy bookends in the history of television, and, by extension, the history of mass culture in America. The shows are separated by 40 years of technological advances — a progression from the over-the-air broadcast era in which Mr. Lear made it big, to the cable age of MTV and CNN and HBO, to, finally, the modern era of streaming services like Netflix. Each new technology allowed a leap forward in choice, flexibility and quality; the “Golden Age of TV” offers so much choice that some critics wonder if it’s become overwhelming.
It’s not just TV, either. Across the entertainment business, from music to movies to video games, technology has flooded us with a profusion of cultural choice.
More good stuff to watch and listen to isn’t bad. But the new “One Day at a Time” offers a chance to reflect on what we have lost in embracing tech-abetted abundance. Last year’s presidential election and its aftermath were dominated by discussions of echo chambers and polarization; as I’ve argued before, we’re all splitting into our own self-constructed bubbles of reality.
What’s less discussed is the polarization of culture, and the new echo chambers within which we hear about and experience today’s cultural hits. There will never again be a show like “One Day at a Time” or “All in the Family” — shows that derived their power not solely from their content, which might not hold up to today’s more high-minded affairs, but also from their ubiquity. There’s just about nothing as popular today as old sitcoms were; the only bits of shared culture that come close are periodic sporting events, viral videos, memes and occasional paroxysms of political outrage (see Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech and the aftermath).
Instead, we’re returning to the cultural era that predated radio and TV, an era in which entertainment was fragmented and bespoke, and satisfying a niche was a greater economic imperative than entertaining the mainstream.
“We’re back to normal, in a way, because before there was broadcasting, there wasn’t much of a shared culture,” said Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. “For most of the history of civilization, there was nothing like TV. It was a really odd moment in history to have so many people watching the same thing at the same time.”
That’s not to romanticize the TV era. At its peak, broadcast TV was derided for its shallowness, for its crass commercialism, for the way it celebrated conformity and rejected heterodoxy, and mostly for often not being very creative or entertaining. Neil Postman wrote that we were using TV to “amuse ourselves to death,” and Newton N. Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy, famously called it a “vast wasteland.”