Americans, Idle

Jordin Sparks' victory last evening is not really about uncovering the next big thing. Despite the endless parade of tone-deaf wannabes that typify "American Idol"'s first several weeks each season, Sparks, while talented, is not really that unique. America is full of future dons and divas.

The spectacle here -- indeed, the phenomenon -- is in many ways a requiem for what TV used to be. Beyond the stars, the stories, the lessons, and the humanity, "American Idol' is a swan song for TV's once sacred bastion: the most powerful unifying national element.

The currency of the TV industry was built upon the actions of Americans, idle. What we as a people watched while we were doing nothing became more than a curiosity. Like PDAs on a docking station, TV had the ability to reprogram and upload common ideas and phrases into the subconscious minds of millions of families. I still remember walking the halls of Chariho High in the mid-1970s one morning, and hearing Robert Ponichtera snarling "Up your nose with a rubber hose," to which a gaggle of pimpled prepubescents responded "Twice as far with a candy bar." This unrehearsed chorus, on cue, stemmed from a single catchphrase broadcast just once on a TV program a mere 12 hours earlier.

Sure, Vinny Barbarino and John Travolta became household names as a byproduct of this mindless drivel, but the power of TV's unintentional ability to brainwash a nation (and a world once mesmerized by American media) was undeniable.

Certainly the power brokers recognized TV's stealth ability to propagandize. More than an instrument to sound the alarm about perps on the loose, missiles pointed, or tornado touchdowns, execs deftly manipulated the power of the tube to steer an unwitting national consciousness leftward... ah, but we shall save this for another day.

For now, let's acknowledge that the "Welcome Back Kotter" audience sizes of yesterday were once far more common than the anomalous "magnitude" of "American Idol"'s similarly sized mass, today. (And no, I won't be egged into trashing the accuracy of either generation's measurement methodologies...)

My question is, "Are we better off because of the myriad of media choices, channels, and content available to us today?" Has the democratization of media resulted in a better nation? Is the fact that one cannot visit a party or workplace and engage in common discussions about a TV program, with more than but a potentially small handful of others, make for a stronger, or weaker, nation? Or does it matter?

Does TV itself, for that matter, matter?

I would venture to say that the knee-jerk reaction is "Yes." In a nation fueled by freedom, the thought of limited choices and directed thought runs contrary to the DNA that helped mold us in the first place. But are we not stronger when we have more in common than a shared solitude? Is anyone else haunted by Sting's deserted beachside observation:

"Walked out this morning,
Don't believe what I saw.
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore.
Seems I'm not alone at being alone;
A hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home..."

My gut? We killed the golden goose. The fracturing of our TV medium, and the very psyche of our nation, finds its genesis in the advent of the remote control and extended commercial breaks.

It's not that we don't crave or deserve choice; it's not that time-shifting and place-shifting aren't natural extensions of the pursuit of happiness. It's that the TV nation has flown the coop a bit too early -- and our increasingly infrequent family reunions tend to be limited to overhyped jockfests or modernized iterations of "The Ed Sullivan Show."

"I'll send an S.O.S. to the world...."