While America has always had regional and political differences, for much of American history technology and infrastructure projects knit the country closer together. Steamboats transformed river traffic. Both goods and people could move more quickly and efficiently than had been imaginable, and cities on the same river, and later lakes, became, in essence, closer and more involved with each other.
Canals were built that tied sections of the country together that were not previously connected by rivers or coasts. The most famous, the Erie Canal, made it possible for goods to flow from the Midwest to the East and back making these areas interdependent in ways that they were not before. The extensive networks of other canals helped amalgamate what had been separate localities into regions.
Railroads made almost every part of the country closer to each other. The West Coast and the East Coast for the first time were truly part of the same nation. With railroads and their kid brother, streetcars, city neighborhoods, outlying areas, and downtowns became part of a single metropolis.
Air traffic and the interstate highways furthered the process. Although many differences remained, regions were bonded into one country because of transportation improvements, almost all of which were government funded or subsidized.
Communication advances also knit the country tighter. With the telegraph, interregional business became more efficient. The telegraph allowed the same national news to be read throughout the country on the same day. Speedy communications between friends, acquaintances, and relatives in distant parts of the land became possible. And, of course, all this was immeasurably furthered with the telephone.
Technological advances allowed people throughout the country to experience the same culture. With the phonograph masses could hear Enrico Caruso, Gene Austin, and Bessie Smith far beyond the limited audience of a performing space. Movies made Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, and many since then into nationwide stars. With the national distribution of movies, fashion and other trends now quickly spread throughout the country as masses saw Veronica Lake’s hairdo and that Clark Gable was not wearing an undershirt. Newsreels allowed Americans throughout the country to experience Hitler rallies, the invasion of Ethiopia, and World Series highlights in ways that were not possible before.
With radio, millions could hear at the same time fireside chats and Edgar Bergen in their living rooms. (I still don’t quite understand ventriloquism on the radio.) Television intensified that trend as huge portions of the country simultaneously watched the same entertainment, sports, and news. Conversations around the country the next day would be about the same topics—Lucille Ball’s antics, Alan Ameche plunging for a touchdown as the Colts beat the Giants in overtime, JFK’s funeral, and the moon landing.
For much of our history, technological and infrastructure changes moved Americans more towards being one people. Now, however, we often see a land with many increasing and unyielding divisions. Much of this talk of a new divisiveness is overblown. Even as the United States became more united in some ways, strong factions always existed. However, it is true that some recent trends and technological advances have meant that Americans’ sharing of common experiences has lessened. Cable television may have started this. With the hegemony of three television networks destroyed, we no longer had common TV shows. The goal of reaching a mass audience has now been replaced by targeted audiences. Michiko Kakutani in The Death of Truth maintains, “New Star War movies and the Super Bowl remain some of the few communal events that capture an audience cutting across demographic lines.”
What communal media events do we have now? I had heard and seen many comments about the end of Game of Thrones as its finale approached. A mass cultural event was about to happen, or was it? The initial showing of the last episode was watched by 13.6 million people on HBO and 19.4 million on all platforms within a day or so. That is a lot of people experiencing the same event at almost the same time. But compare that to the finale of M*A*S*H in 1983 when 105.9 million watched without the advantage of immediate replays and with about 100 million fewer people (234 million) in the population compared to 2019 (330 million).
The M*A*S*H audience was indeed extraordinary—77% of TV viewers. Even so, the final episode of Cheers in 1993 and of Seinfeld in 1998 drew 84.4 million and 76.3 million viewers when the country’s population was about 260 million. The viewership of many other final episodes including All in the Family at 40.2 million in 1979 and Gunsmoke at 30.9 million dwarf Game of Thrones in both raw numbers and the percentage of the population. More than a half century ago, in 1967, 78 million people watched the final episode of The Fugitive (72% audience share) when the country had 199 million people.
It is true that the Super Bowl remains an American communal event. The last one drew 102.1 million viewers which made it the tenth most watched Super Bowl and eleventh most watched TV show ever—that M*A*S*H finale again.
A similar change in communal movie watching has also occurred. Movie success is measured in dollars, not audience size. The last Star Wars offering had a box office take of $177 million for its opening weekend in 2019. This was less than for the 2017 Star Wars opening ($220 million) and the 2015 opening ($247 million.) Rough calculations using what I pay for movie tickets—expensive New York but senior-citizen rates—the last Star Wars opening had millions fewer viewers in that weekend communal event than even the Game of Thrones finale. (continued April 27)