The end of rerun nation, or am I just getting old?

A funny thing happened to me in my TV Criticism class yesterday. We were discussing character and performance, and dissecting various clips I’d prepared, mostly drawn from current series (e.g., Boston Legal, House). One of the clips I showed was from the early episode of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye dupes Frank into investing in a nonexistent company. The clip featured your standard 1974 bits of M*A*S*H: Klinger’s latest ploy to get out of the Army, a perpetually put-upon Henry Blake (in fishing hat), a little Frank-n-Margaret tryst/fight, and some banter between Hawkeye and Trapper. The thing was that only two of my 22 students had ever seen an episode of M*A*S*H.

Let me repeat that: only two of my 22 students had EVER SEEN an episode of one of the most ubiquitous and rerun television series of all time.

Thus, they were unable to rapidly analyze bits of costume and action, or Larry Linville’s consistently amazing performances, because they had no context for it.

After grasping my heart in shock, and no doubt sprouting a few more gray hairs, I conceded that yes, they were probably too young to get into M*A*S*H. The majority of today’s college students, after all, were born precisely when I was an undergraduate, the late 1980s. M*A*S*H‘s primary rerun ubiquity was on the wane by about 1990. Fair enough. Since this was at the end of class anyway, I wished them a good weekend, and then ruminated about this experience on the drive home.

One of the key arguments of my book Rerun Nation is that commercial culture has long been deployed via repetition. That is, texts are mass produced and redistributed again and again in subsequent years. This basic premise has taken all sorts of paths over the past century or so depending on the cultural form and historical and industrial contexts. The advent of television rerun syndication in the 1950s fostered the move to repetition as fiscal strategy; television series started to be initially produced with the goal of becoming successful reruns down the road. This in turn helped fuel what I deemed the “Television Heritage” in US popular culture beginning in the 1970s, when the sheer ubiquity of reruns began to be channelled into the reconstruction of popular memory about the post-World War II era. Since then, everything from the rise of basic cable to the production of DVD box sets has been fuled in part by the marketing of and exploitation of popular memory.

I mentioned in the book’s conclusion (written around March 2004) that that paradigm appeared to be shifting a bit, with vast quantities and varieties of new media texts crowding out older texts, even “evergreens.” Looking back, I think I greatly underestimated the effect of new media interfaces. Although file-sharing was well established by that point, the potentials of iPod culture, BitTorrent, and Web 2.0 (not yet defined then) were much less certain. My students have largely come of age during this three-year gap, moving from high school into college, and incorporating all of the above (particuarly common Web 2.0 apps like YouTube, FaceBook, and MySpace) into their everyday existence.

I gather evidence of this each semester in my intro-level Survey of Media course, where I ask students to track their media usage over four days and write a short paper based on what they find. What I find is that their media is indeed mobile and multitasked, that TV shows are watched as often as not in weekend DVD (or online) binges rather than on “traditional” schedules, that being online indeed incorporates several different functions at once (self-maintenance, community-maintenance, education, financial, entertainment, information, etc.).

Now, none of this is all that earth-shattering if you’ve been keeping up with the general research (or even shallower reportage) on the so-called Millenials and their media. What I hadn’t realized, or perhaps hadn’t fully appreciated, is how the sheer volume of media forms and models of media use has begun to eliminate loads of past media texts (i.e., those very reruns I wrote about) from the radar screens (or should I say MySpace pages?) of this generation.

As a 21st century teen/twentysomething living in a technologically advanced society, you’ll never lack for media. So why watch M*A*S*H (or The Honeymooners, or Bewitched, or Star Trek, etc.), if there are a couple of dozen cable channels, umpteen broadband sites, and vast audio and video resources presenting material much more in tune with your cohort and interests? Maybe we GenXers (now sauntering blithely through our 30s and 40s) only watched them because there was damn near nothing else on and/or to do.

I’m not quite sure how to theorize about this more precisely. Suffice it to say that something profound has happened in the ten years since loads of my old UW-Madison undergrads were awash in 60s and 70s pop culture. The retro culture of the 90s has been replaced by something much more nebulous and and much less linear, where even the references don’t matter, and everything “old” is fully absorbed into the “new,” or simply cast aside.

Was this the way the WWII generation felt when the kids started dancing the twist, growing their hair long, reading Kerouac, and dropping out over a few years in the 60s? Was this what horrified baby boomers thought when punk, MTV, and hip-hop turned their world upside down in the 80s and 90s?

While I’m certainly not horrified, I have to confess to being a bit lost, to having my reference points and assumptions eroded without my knowledge. I mean, you’ve never seen M*A*S*H?!?

So, what’s going on here?


3 Responses to “The end of rerun nation, or am I just getting old?”

  1. chutry Says:

    Thoughtful post and some interesting questions here. My off-the-cuff response is that M*A*S*H has been less visible on syndication than a lot of other shows of its era. I’d imagine that your (our) students are more likely to have seen ’70s and ’80s re-runs on Nick at Nite and may simply have slightly different cultural resonances (after all the phrase “jump the shark” still carries a high degree of relevance). And my students frequently laugh at my references to “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver” style families (of course, this doesn’t mean that they’ve seen a large number of episodes of these shows–they just get the joke).

    That being said, I think you’re right to point towards a certain type of historical flattening that seems to be taking place because of the number of media and entertainment options available.

  2. Elliot Says:

    I had similar experiences in my “TV & Post TV” class so far this semester, but find that it does not apply to every student. Some have gone back and watched ‘My So-Called Life,’ some still watch the Fresh Prince of Bel Aire,’ others are only familiar (or can only seem to recall) shows that are in their first run now. The rule of thumb seems to be that the shows had to have been in their original run during their childhood. My experience of growing up w/ shows that had been canceled before I was born (Lost in Space, The Brady Bunch) seems not to be happening anymore.

    The abundance of texts reminds me of music fandom. One of my students was an avid Twin Peaks fan (which was on when he was about 5). Perhaps discovering Twin Peaks and Buffy will be something like discovering Led Zeppelin was for me (born 1976). One can hope.

  3. Lindsay Says:

    Very interesting post – considering I was in that class and was one of the two students who had actually watched MASH, I think I may have sprouted a few gray hairs too. As to the disappearance of the rerun nation in the face increasingly abundant media, I think it’s only partly true. I concur with Elliot’s rule of thumb – reruns as a whole have not disappeared for this new generation, just the ones that aired before their childhood. MySpace pages are still loaded with Saved By The Bell graphics, Friends graphics (which sadly, was in its early peak when most undergrads were children), etc.

    And with DVRs, the Web 2.0, and dowloadable content, it’s true that we have more choice on what to watch – we’re not stuck watching reruns like we were 10 or 20 years ago. But, the truth is that a lot of younger people, myself and my roommate included (both of us are not quite millenials – we were born in 1980) actually use these new technologies to watch reruns. In fact, my roommate has Growing Pains set as a season pass on TiVo, and I have reruns of Without A Trace and Judging Amy (both on TNT) also set to season pass. For WOT and GP, it’s like a stocked amount of comfort TV to watch when nothing else is on. And in the case of Judging Amy, I never watched it when it was on first-run, but have discovered how much I love it in the case of its reruns.

    So, I would posit that rerun nation is alive and well, just in a different way – it’s Rerun Nation 2.0 perhaps…

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