Cult in the Connected Age, ctd.

by Sonny Bunch on December 7, 2012

When the rise of television destroyed moviegoing as a mass habit, it simultaneously enhanced the opportunities for film fetishism and ritual screenings. Movies became integral to the celebration of religious events. King of Kings, Easter Parade, White Christmas, and Micracle on 34th Street were invariably telecast on their appropriate holidays. Starting in the mid-1950s, The Wizard of Oz was televised once a year during the Easter season.

J. Hoberman & Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies, 1983

I’m unsure to what extent the above is still true. There is definitely a fetishization/ritualization of films, especially around the holidays. But more commercial Christmas films have taken the place of the religious epics—”24 Hours of A Christmas Story,” anyone?—and audience fragmentation/the expansion of cable, both in terms of home penetration and the number of channels offered, have rendered annual airings of films like Miracle on 34th St. or It’s a Wonderful Life more or less moot. Sports have replaced film as events we all watch together on television.

The golden age of TV has helped reinvigorate television shows as events we get together, watch, and discuss (albeit on the web rather than the water cooler). But even then, we’re talking about massively diminished numbers. Consider The Walking Dead: The biggest dramatic program on basic cable—in the history of basic cable, I believe—pulled 10.5 million viewers for its midseason finale (and 10.9 million in its premiere). That show’s numbers in the key demo of younger viewers were better than all but a handful of network television shows. Those are huge numbers for cable, but they’re still relatively insignificant: that’s about three or four percent of the American population. Compare that to the ritual screenings of The Wizard of Oz, which, according to a NYT story cited by Wiki, pulled in at least 49 percent of TV audiences during its early broadcast airings. Not to mention the epic audiences for the finales of MASH, Cheers, etc.

In that sense, then, TV shows in this new golden age are more like “well-regarded indies” than “cult classics,” objects of fetishization. Or perhaps they are best thought of as a variety of insta-cult-classics, 13 one-week-obsessions we pore over and then dispose of, waiting for the next AV Club or Slate discussion to start. As Alyssa Rosenberg noted the other day, this can all be a bit exhausting, especially given the intensity of the modern cable program. Cable and the Internet have combined to dramatically change how we watch television (or, at least, how a certain small-but-influential segment of the middle-to-upper-middle class watch television—are Mad Men dress up parties really that different from midnight screenings of Rocky Horror?). Cults in the connected age are by no means limited to film.

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