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Pop Goes TV News: How Pop Culture Is Consuming Everything

by Stephanie Earp, posted Sep 13th 2010 9:00PM
A few weeks ago, I found myself eating breakfast across from a large jumboscreen playing the all-news all-the-time TV channel. Various tickers took up most of the real estate, and while my breakfast companion (my mother) watched the latest stock numbers go by, I read the main ticker, fascinated that every single story had a celebrity or pop culture angle. The results of studies about Facebook users followed news of Angelina Jolie's latest humanitarian mission, intermingled with Toronto Film Festival updates and reports from the sets of the new fall TV shows.

I realized later on that I was probably watching when an entertainment loop was on, but what surprised me is that I wasn't fazed when I thought that was it -- that the ticker was reporting all the news of the world, and all that news was about celebrities.

I don't know if I just didn't notice before, but lately it seems like pop culture is bigger than it's ever been. It takes up so much room in our lives. A huge part of that is attributable to our hand-held devices -- our smartphones and computer tablets and the social networking programs we use on them. Where would Facebook be without the David Hasselhoff hamburger incident, the 'Dexter' Season 5 preview, or the double rainbow guy? It would be 300+ people you barely remember from high school updating you on how many teeth their baby has now -- a valuable service, to be sure, but it would never have grown to such gargantuan proportions without viral pop culture stories.

When I was growing up, the place I saw pop culture most was at the magazine rack at the grocery store. I was an US Weekly junkie in my teens, but I'd settle for People (which took itself so seriously back then) if I had to get through a long car ride or flight. Two weekly magazines were the entire source of pop culture and celebrity news. Take a serious look at the magazine rack next time you go shopping and think about how much that has changed. These days, every major magazine is a pop culture magazine. Vogue, Glamour, Cosmo and the other big fashion rags have celebs on the cover almost every month. Psychology Today probably has a celeb on the cover. Home decor and cooking are delivered through human proxies like Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray -- more celebrities. And the gossip magazines have multiplied like rabbits, each taking on a small niche of the pop culture universe. At this point, many of the cover lines are as mysterious to me as the tease lines on Soap Opera Digest. Real Housewives and Bachelorettes involved in storylines as bizarre as anything from 'General Hospital' grace the covers of the magazines that fed my teenage obsession with Meg Ryan and Jennifer Connelly.

Even plain old culture is going pop culture. TV shows about painting -- like Bravo's 'Star Portraits' -- and genealogy -- like 'Who Do You Think You Are' -- use celebrities to try to draw an audience, and even more importantly, coverage. When Brad Pitt builds houses in New Orleans, the media covers it. When thousands of religious charities do it, it becomes fodder for a satirical scene in 'Treme.'

We even respond to news stories by creating more pop culture. 'The Daily Show' and 'The Colbert Report' thrive on this, and I give them full credit for making art out of the drivel we get from traditional news sources. With YouTube as an outlet, the 'Daily Show' generation has been inspired to do the same. Recently, one YouTube user responded to a video from the G20 fiasco in Toronto by creating a web cartoon called 'Officer Bubbles.' One of the videos has over 20, 000 views and generated several stories in the local media, on blogs and of course, countless tweets and Facebook posts.

'Officer Bubbles' Video - YouTube

We experience news stories as pop culture too, because they increasingly come to our attention through the same channels as gossip, and in some cases, the fact that the story is disseminated like gossip becomes the story. For example, the whole burning of the Qur'an debacle that dominated the news last week. This is a classic example of a non-story that spread through Facebook and Twitter, got picked up by traditional media and eventually wound up being addressed by President Obama, becoming a legitimate story. And I think what Obama said is true, the whole thing could affect the safety of soldiers in Afghanistan. So some guy in Florida managed to post something on his blog and have it wind up in the thoughts of the President of the USA and foreign terrorists. We, the people who posted about this guy on FB and Twitter -- even those of us who denounced the idea -- made this story happen. We gossiped our way into creating a more dangerous situation in Afghanistan. It's sort of stunning if you think about it.

I'm not necessarily saying that the rise of all pop culture all the time is a bad thing. I've had conversations about anti-feminist messages in Christopher Nolan's films that were as enlightening and inspiring as some of the courses I took in feminist theory back in university, and if Brad Pitt's work in NOLA inspires someone to donate or help out, I can't fault the media for covering it. But I do wonder where this all leads. If all other forms of discussion are blocked out by celebs, film and TV reviews and viral videos, it gives those content creators huge power over us. This criticism has been leveled at Jon Stewart because 'The Daily Show' has such a stranglehold on young viewers. He responds by saying he is just a comedian and that it's not his job to inform. And I sympathize with that, I do. But what if there were no genuine news outlets? What if they all became a slightly more serious version of TMZ? Because from where I'm standing, that doesn't seem impossible.

I'm curious if I'm alone in this, or do you also see pop culture cropping up in places it never used to live? It's always been in our magazines and on our TV, but now it's in our phones and computers, and skewing our news. Where do you see pop culture creep?

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petra b.

i believe the term pop (or popular) culture as differentiated from "serious" or "genuine" media will in a way come to swallow the latter and thereby fall into obsolescence.
Actually i can't really say i am well informed when it comes to evaluating the content or quality of the pop culture of our times as i try to avoid it to a large degree. i don't have a cell phone (i believe they cause brain cancer; it'll take 15 years to bring public consciousness to see it and i suspect it will follow exactly the same course as smoking did). i avoid Facebook because i see their intentions and believe they intend to create an exclusive record of our current culture and will sell the pics you post now to your great-grandkids. And i watch Discovery Channel instead of any sitcoms. But i do e-mail a lot, use Skype regularly and have a website.
However i absolutely love Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. If they generate a pop culture identity (or stigma) it is only incidental. Who else is there to counter Fox News (and why didn't you include them in the same genre of media - pop culture)(don't tell me you consider Fox News practices serious and objective journalism).
But then looking against the backdrop of our present day does not Walter Cronkite appear quite pop-culturesque reflecting the "dead-serious" father-knows-best values of that era. (But he sure held our hearts and souls when Appolo 13 happened.)
Can we ever apply the terms "serious", "objective", or "traditional" to journalism again now that we recognise, albeit perhaps unconsciously at this point, that we cannot escape all journalism (maybe even information is a better term) being refracted through the lens of the values of a culture or sub-culture and calling it an objective take on the existential pie is quite a folly.
So Stewart puts it right out there that he's only doing comedy, allowing him total freedom to bring into the American consciousness very topical and pertinent issues and debates and also de-construct our strong prejudices (i.e.: against Islam). Colbert of course plays the faux conservative egotist and is the jester in the court of American politics.
It seems to me the nature of our reality itself is shifting quite rapidly (perhaps it is due to the "acceleration in frequency" talked about in relation to 2012, leading to the spinning-off of our collective karma) and it just appears like pop-culture is taking over until we as a global community come to realize that what is in our hearts is reflected accurately in what we (choose to) see in the landscape of our current events.

September 15 2010 at 1:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You won't find any 'hard' news on the TV regardless of whether it's John Stewart or CNN - it's all entertainment. In fact the Supreme Court ruled that TV news didn't have to tell the truth because it's considered a form of entertainment.

September 14 2010 at 1:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"When Brad Pitt builds houses in New Orleans, the media covers it. When thousands of religious charities do it, it becomes fodder for a satirical scene in 'Treme.'"

And when secular charities do it, not even TV Squad bloggers hear about it.

September 14 2010 at 11:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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