Guest Commentary: The Vast Parallel Culture

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

A cosmic shift in the United States’ societal center of gravity is evolving entertainment values that are significantly out of sync with what has been the executive thinking along the Avenue of the Americas and Sunset Boulevard.
Start with this base: Since HBO launched in the late ’70s, followed by the launches of Showtime and Starz!, premium cable channels have never collectively penetrated their sex/violence/profanity into more than about a third of their potential subscriber homes.
There’s a vast parallel culture out there in those 70 million or so “not-for-me” households (with more than half the nation’s children) in the nation’s 108.4 million TV households (according to Nielsen Media Research).
This VPC lives between those far coasts. It can be found mostly in states colored red in the 2000 vote count.
That VPC exploded on the entertainment graph at that Super Bowl moment when, for them, the “decency” line trending up crossed the “sleaze” trend line. Conflicted by MTV dance and lyrics, millions recognized a common value set, the feeling “I’m not a prude … but #@&*! … enough!”
“Decency” is being propelled by several key unavoidable cultural factors reflected in the recent census:
Not Just Children
The child portion of the population is declining. Just 36 percent of households have children under 18 (compared with 55 percent in 1972). Only 25 percent of all homes are “married couples with children.” The number of adults who live alone will increase significantly, driven by a 73 percent increase in singles ages 45 to 64. Demographers expect torrid growth in the number of empty-nesters as the children of baby boomers move out of the house. VPC households are mostly adults-only.
It takes more than just parents with children at home to deliver Gallup polls in which 64 percent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the moral and ethical climate in America (Jan. 12-15, before the Super Bowl); 68 percent of women and 48 percent of men are offended by profanity on television (Feb. 6-8, after the Super Bowl); and more than half (58 percent) are offended by sexual content they see and hear on television. Adults desire “decency” for both children and themselves.
Preferences Change With Age
We have the oldest adult population in our history. They are the most affluent adults in the history of mankind. The median adult age (over 18) today is 44.
Psychologists tell us the values of narcissism, hedonism and materialism (hmm, wasn’t that the Super Bowl halftime?) begin to ebb at the onset of middle age.
As the middle-ager’s entertainment values mature, what appeals veers to romance, not graphic sex; adventure, not graphic violence; conflict and resolution, not unnecessary and discomforting coarse language.
Baby Boomers’ Impact
We now have the moonlike pull of the baby boomers (ages 39 to 57), who for the first time in history are clustered around the adult median age of 44.
Those boomers are 40 percent of all our adults. America has never experienced an adult block that large before, a block larger than adults younger and adults older.
Previous generations passed through middle age with little impact on the entire society. Not so this time.
America’s adult median age is now the same as middle age, a time when a person’s values undergo a review, often a major adjustment or realignment. What was a youth culture in the United States has now become a middle-age culture, provoked to throwing its weight around by Super Bowl conduct.
By sheer bulk, the midlife concerns and altered attitudes of today’s immense boomer demographic will be reflected in popular culture. Boomers form the disproportionately large critical mass that can propel an idea into the collective unconscious to form new meanings, new definitions of what is acceptable; a powerful societal center pulling everything toward it.
Consumer behaviorist David Wolfe terms the adult median-age impact on society as the psychological center of gravity. This magnet upon a society’s attitudes and acceptance of entertainment, politics and so forth is a powerful force exerted by those adults in the range five years older and five years younger than a society’s median age. Today that 10-year band is 39 to 49-and aging.
It’s a massive shift-an unprecedented, beyond-its-size shift. Mr. Wolfe refers to the work of Maslow, Jung, Erikson and other academics in the study of a society’s collective core values and how values common to the psychological center of gravity become commanding values for an entire society.
A broad, inevitable societal value morphing is thus taking place.
The Super Bowl outcry demonstrates the television-as-is disconnect with this demographic shift-clearly an industry slow to sense the aging, morphing entertainment values of this vast parallel culture where boomers command.
America’s decades-long youth culture of materialism, hedonism and narcissism is ebbing, drowned by a huge oncoming societal tide of aging adult baby boomers demanding “decency.”
Rod Warner is president of The R Corp., an electronic media consulting and investment firm in Sarasota, Fla.