When something changes in popular culture, there can be an impulse to declare that the larger world has somehow been altered forever. The decline of physical media must mean that albums are dead. The rise of Netflix must mean that cinema is over. And yet, in spite of these proclamations, albums continue to exist, and people continue to go to movie theaters. Our constant vigilance for an entertainment-related apocalypse hasn’t yet stopped the world from turning. (Thank goodness.)
And so, according to some pundits, the series finale of Games Of Thrones is supposed to bring about another mini-doomsday scenario. Supposedly, this will be the final TV show that “we” all watch together. I put scare-quotes around “we” because I, personally, did not watch Game Of Thrones. I also know many other people who didn’t watch Game Of Thrones, and I presume there are literally tens of millions of strangers who also don’t care. I don’t point this out in order to denigrate the show or the people who did watch it. I am not “bragging” about not caring about the popular thing. I am letting people enjoy things! I’m just saying, the royal we erases me and many others. Please don’t deny us our person-hood status just because we find shows involving zombies and dragons to be boring and/or silly. (Okay, so I denigrated Game Of Thrones just a tiny bit.)
There’s no denying that Game Of Thrones was an extremely popular TV show, or that many people treated it as appointment television, meaning they tuned in at a specific time and date each week, as opposed to simply watching it on demand. In some cases, it was because viewers wanted the communal experience of watching Game Of Thrones while also surveying the reactions of fellow viewers on social media. Though, I suspect, this is probably less common than it might appear. The vast majority of people aren’t glued to Twitter or Facebook while they watch a show. They might have wanted to watch Game Of Thrones right away simply because the media (this site included) breathlessly reported on every aspect of each episode the moment it aired.
But will Game Of Thrones really be the last show that people experience together? I don’t believe that for a second. Something tells me that we’ll forget all about this conversation once Big Little Lies comes back. Or Stranger Things. Or Westworld. Or that Amazon redux of The Lord Of The Rings, when or if it actually airs. Absurdly popular things aren’t going away. Nor is wall-to-wall coverage of popular things. In fact, the opposite seems to be happening. Our most dominant cultural behemoths are getting harder and harder to avoid. And the media needs that to be so.
My perspective on this is informed by having spent most of my career as a music critic. This narrative about the dying monoculture occurred around pop music back in the early ’10s. At the time, there was a common assumption that no song or artist would be able to achieve critical mass in the fragmented internet era. For the most part, I thought this was a good thing. Why pine for the days when MTV and the radio fixated on the same pop stars? Finally, the fringes might not be quite so marginalized! Back then, I was fond of positing my pet theory about how pop music as we knew it would no longer exist, given how much other music was now easily accessible. Finally, there would be no need for listeners to simply glom on to whatever corporate record labels fed them. You could now eat wherever you want!
Of course, I was wrong. Stupidly, idiotically wrong. I assumed that the preponderance of entertainment options would dilute the power of the those at the top. It was a massive under-estimation of capitalism’s power. What actually happened is that all of those lesser known options were simply re-marginalized, fortifying the strength and visibility of the top one percent. After all, it’s bad business to undermine the stuff that actually makes money — it’s smarter to redouble your emphasis on a few potential blockbusters, and let the rest either fade away or fall off altogether. The media itself was an accomplice, optimizing web traffic to reward coverage of the most popular things. Winners kept on winning.
There was also the fact that people like mass-appeal and corporate-supported pop music — in part because it’s shared by large groups of people, including their friends and family. (More on that in a moment.)