One of the biggest trends of the past couple of decades has been the increasing commercialization of what used to be thought of as a counterculture.
The 1950s and ’60s movement to question all existing values quickly entered the mainstream, and in the 1980s it basically became the mainstream, insofar as there is such a thing in our fractured Omniculture. The values pursued are originality, passion, assertiveness, authenticity, and the like.
In the Omniculture, a place without a central set of widely shared values, enormous corporate conglomerates pursue particular audience slices by means of "edgy," aggressively weird programming.
Pay-cable series such as Six Feet Under and Weeds, for example, are programs that really make very little sense as entertainment or popular art, although there are interesting thoughts to be found in them, but they are able to find an audience because a certain thrill is given to viewers as participating in something truly "challenging" that sets them apart from their boring neighbors who watch football and shop at Wal-Mart.
This is vividly true of the cable network Bravo, which started out as basically an opera and ballet channel and in the past few years has evolved into an outlet for would-be urban sophisticates—under the ownership of corporate giant NBC, and with large investments of money from the latter.
A new article in Broadcasting and Cable summarizes it well:
For a network that began life more than 25 years ago as a pay channel devoted to performing-arts programming, Bravo has come a long way. Once the bastion of opera, ballet and repertory theater, it’s now the network of Runway host and supermodel Heidi Klum, bad-boy R&B singer Bobby Brown and the Fab Five.
Since being acquired by NBC in 2002, Bravo has morphed into a decidedly more middle-brow programmer, with celebrity-studded unscripted series like Runway, Top Chef and Being Bobby Brown aimed squarely at viewers in the advertiser-prized 18-49 demographic. But while other networks have attracted new—and younger—viewers with similar programming changes, [Bravo president Lauren] Zalaznick and her team are zeroing in on a select group of smart, affluent viewers, with an aggressive marketing strategy positioning the once buttoned-down network as fabulously hip and positively off the charts with buzz.
And there are signs that it’s working. Project Runway, which celebrates the creative process—and cut-throat competition—behind clothing design, is the most watched series in Bravo’s history, with an episode last month drawing a record 4.1 million viewers. The network’s third-quarter primetime audience was its highest ever, with an average 627,000 viewers.
Of course, what is "fabulously hip and positively off the charts with buzz" today is ordinary and dull tomorrow. That is why the boundary of strangeness and perversity must always move outward, as today’s "sophisticates" attempt to prove themselves more adventurous and authentic than their predecessors.
And that is why the Omniculture, in concert with new technology, continually fractures the society into radically smaller pieces. It remains a mystery as to what the ultimate outcome of such a process must be—but it doesn’t seem likely to be overly salubrious.