It has been fascinating to follow the various responses both on TV and online to the deaths of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon. Some have paused to mourn the passing of these celebrities; others have expressed frustration that so much energy has been spent discussing such "trivial" matters.
Considering these deaths from my perspective as a media studies scholar, my reaction is somewhat akin to the response I had to the end of ER. In different ways, each of these figures represented the age of "mass" media. So to mourn the loss of these people is also to mourn, in yet one more way, the end of a specific time in media history.
Consider this: At its peak (as the #5 show on TV), more than 18 million people tuned in to watch Farrah and company on Charlie's Angels. In contrast, the #5 show on TV in 2009 -- during sweeps, no less -- was Dancing with the Stars, which was viewed by about 5.8 million people. At the time Charlie's Angels aired, reality shows were a relatively marginal format. Now several are among the highest rated of shows. In addition, reality shows serve as a primary place where new "stars" are generated. (It is quite telling that just this week reports have circulated that Dancing with the Stars' performer Julianne Hough may next appear in a new big-screen iteration of Footloose with High School Musical star Zac Efron...that is, if she can learn to act).
Similarly, The Tonight Show was the late night show when Ed McMahon served as Carson's sidekick. Interestingly, for the first time in years, The Tonight Show once again has a sidekick in the form of Andy Richter. Yet now the late night landscape is not only overrun with seemingly endless programming alternatives, but with myriad talk show alternatives. Not only do we have many more broadcast options but cable has also entered into the late night talk show fray with Chelsea Handler and (very soon) George Lopez (among others). What's more, the days of NBC/Tonight dominating the ratings are long gone. These days, we are being barraged regularly with reports (or should I say spin) of the week's reigning late night king. (Though Nightline apparently beat both on Thursday night.)
And then there's the changes in the music industry. As one of my Facebook friends noted, "all it took was for Michael Jackson to die to make MTV start showing videos again." One is more likely to find a rock star in a reality show than in a music video these days -- at least on TV. (Heck, just this week, Nick Cannon made his premiere as host of America's Got Talent.) And as is the case with all media forms online, the music industry continues to struggle to figure out how to "monetize" music videos.
If the performer(s) aren't part of a Disney Channel program (or American Idol), the chances that they will break out seem slim indeed. Speaking of which, just this week the Jonas Brothers' latest album was released. It promptly became the number one title on the Billboard Top 100. Album sales totaled 247,000 copies. It seems safe to say that these chart-topping brothers will never come anywhere close to selling number of albums sold by those famous brothers of yore, the Jackson Five.
Yep, these are different days indeed.