Caviar culture

How long will the masses be able to afford mass media?

Published June 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Entertainment Weekly, which discovers and obsesses over television shows with a serial lover's passion -- take its torrid mid-'90s fling with "Friends," whose number the magazine recently pulled back out of its little black book for old times' sake -- has now turned on to "The Sopranos." EW teased a preview package for the HBO Mafia series's encore summer run on its cover -- including an A-to-Z glossary, the EW equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

EW isn't alone; the show's just-opened curtain call is receiving perhaps the greatest huzzahs ever to greet a summer of reruns. (The Washington Post's Tom Shales writes, "Some reruns do seem too grand for the term 'rerun.'") Tom Carson in Esquire hailed the rer -- sorry, encores -- last month; more recently, Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times, "It just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century," which in turn may be the greatest work of critical hyperbole in, oh, the past couple weeks.

What's interesting is not so much the level of attention, considering that a) it's a fine and witty series that b) is about the mob, allowing those fuggehdaboudit ruminations on manhood and honor and generational change that have been critical faves since "The Godfather." It's that this wide, mainstream attention is going to a show on HBO, a premium subscription channel available in a minority of television households, albeit a growing one.

What you don't much hear is this question: Isn't it a shame people have to kick out a couple hundred bucks a year to get this? Now, that may not be a critic's job, but, effectively, they're increasingly writing to a self-selecting group of fans who dispose growing chunks of income on supplemental entertainment -- the televisual equivalent of the "lobster medallions ($10 supp.)" on a restaurant menu. (The analogy isn't completely strained: Food critics, unlike entertainment critics, have long had to decide whether a restaurant's prices should figure into its rating.)

This is no knock against premium channels, which deserve credit for realizing that high-quality original programming is key to attracting subscribers. In fact, they may be further mainstreaming themselves by gaining customers with shows like "The Sopranos." In the process, though, they're accelerating a trend: the economic multi-tiering of not just TV but all popular culture.

One factor in this emerging caste system is demographic: "Will and Grace" and "Frasier" for one bracket, WWF for another. The number of channels has allowed programmers to slice the audience many ways, and socioeconomically is one of the most popular. But another factor is simple dollars and cents: How much is information and entertainment worth to you? It's long been possible to spend more money on accoutrements -- expensive stereos, popcorn -- but now consumers can drop top dollar on content too. We hear a lot about the splintering of the media audience, but it's not just because there are so many choices. There are also a greater number of price points.

Mass pop culture used to be no-tiered; that's what made it "mass" and "pop." Suppose you defined an RDA of American Popular Culture (RDA-APC) -- that diet of broadcast and reading that one had to ingest to be current with what co-workers were talking about, magazines were writing about and other entertainers were parodying. What did it cost in 1959, 1969? A couple of movie tickets a week? A TV set with rabbit ears, later upgraded to a nifty rooftop antenna? A transistor radio?

Today, you need cable, no question. You have probably rejected something called "basic" or "standard" cable, which is, of course, too basic even to consider: network channels, a channel-guide channel. Instead, you've decided you need the second option, also probably called "standard" or "basic," which communicates that you are really getting, albeit at a premium, the de facto minimum, which it now is: cable news, Animal Planet, "South Park," what have you. Add a couple of premium channels. Beautiful! You're RDA-APC-TV-OK! (Oh, you'll be wanting digital TV in a couple years. Start saving.)

You'll want Internet access -- can't download those movie trailers without Internet access! -- and though you may, like many Americans, do most of your surfing at work, that requires a white-collar job, with desk, computer, bathroom breaks and all the fixin's. If not, or if in any case you want home access, there's the computer, the all-you-can-eat ISP account, the second phone line to take advantage of said account. (We're banking on those lengthy site visits, folks.) Fortunately, you won't need that second line for long -- broadband's coming! (It'll cost you more.)

And there are plenty of tiering opportunities left. Movie theaters are flirting with premium reserved seating, and Universal's Edgar Bronfman Jr., suggested ticket prices should vary on the basis of movies' budgets. The idea hasn't caught on, but there could yet come the day when movies offer a Barney's-to-Wal-Mart spectrum: you can pay $25 for a Will Smith fourth-of-July skyrocket or $3.50 for a romantic comedy cast entirely with Mentos commercial alumni.

Premium channels have been around -- and offering marquee series like "Larry Sanders" -- for a long time. But their growing reliance on original series (Showtime is heavily promoting the coming "Beggars and Choosers") changes the TV dynamic. When the channels mainly trafficked in Hollywood films, they were offering a bulk discount on movies. The deal with original programming is just the opposite: Pay us more for the same type of programming (albeit hopefully better) you get from the networks. If the trend continues -- enlisting more subscribers and drawing creative talent away from networks and basic cable -- the price of critic's-darling series could rise by a couple of Franklins a year.

Add in the overnight price increases effected when the music industry embraces a new recording format. Inflated concert prices. Tele-ticket fees to ensure a seat at the movies. Several-dollar surcharges for major museum shows -- ironically, the ones with the broadest appeal, the Monets and whatnot, set you back the most. (If you want the whole list, listen to an NPR pledge drive, where hosts constantly break down the pile of loot you blow annually on pay media that could instead subsidize those charming Powdermilk Biscuits spots.) Pretty soon Entertainment Weekly, metropolitan newspapers and so on are assuming that you carry a monthly culture bill of a couple of hundred bucks, before Raisinets.

And it's not mere elitism. Critics, contrary to popular belief, like to write about quality work; but, perhaps unavoidably, they have to write to an audience sector willing to pony up for it, even on TV. And you have to wonder whether this could ultimately affect editorial content. Magazines want to offer advertisers affluent readers. What better way to do that by focusing on those readers' preferred media choices?

Tiering could prove good for media consumers in some ways: Many, I bet, would welcome the chance to buy all their cable channels a la carte, rather than pay for a slew they never watch. And a flexible movie-pricing plan like Bronfman's could, ironically, benefit higher-brow indie film attendance -- you could have seen "Pi" with the change under your sofa cushions. (While we're at it, how about wealth-redistribution movie theaters, charging on a sliding income scale: From each according to his ability, to each according to his taste?) There will still be a mainstream, wherever it shifts. But it's costing more to swim there.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------