WASHINGTON, DC–The lowest common denominator (LCD), the leading cultural indicator for American mass-market tastes, continued its precipitous drop last week, fueling worries about the future of the U.S. marketplace for ideas and stoking fears of a long-term cultural recession.
The ill health of the LCD, in steady decline since the advent of television, has been cause for concern among the intelligentsia for decades. But double-digit drops in the LCD since October 2000 have alarmed even the most pandering members of the entertainment industry.
"Quite simply, the collective intelligence level is dropping so rapidly that it's becoming increasingly difficult for producers to insult the intelligence of the American public," said News Corp president and COO Peter Chernin. "Without a way to set a floor for the lowest common denominator, even the stupidest material we can develop is not stupid enough for audiences to enjoy."
As examples of the accelerating descent of the LCD, experts cite Chyna's bestselling wrestling biography, the elephant-sperm-filled Tom Green film Freddy Got Fingered, and MTV's Dude, This Sucks, in which performers defecate explosively onto audience members. Despite efforts to raise national interest rates in more sophisticated fare like The Sopranos, Memento, and Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, the demand for increasingly inane cultural output has rendered efforts futile.
"We face a real crisis in mainstream society's media preferences," said James W. Northrup, special appointee to the recently established LCD Emergency Federal Task Force. "Things that were once base enough for the notoriously undemanding American public are now considered too highbrow for mass consumption. The bar is on the floor, but everyone still wants it lowered."
As the LCD drops, competition for the stupidity dollar grows ever more fierce. Entertainment Tonight, once the nation's standard-bearer for hollow, insipid celebrity journalism, has been rendered respectable by the likes of National Enquirer TV and E!'s Mysteries And Scandals. Survivor, derided by critics upon its debut last year, now stands as the Old Gray Lady of reality television, towering over such crass knock-offs as Boot Camp and Chains Of Love. Even Hollywood, America's primary provider of sub-literate pabulum for nearly a century, must compete with hyper-violent video games, Internet sites featuring foul-mouthed animated genitalia, and mail-order Girls Gone Wild: Sexy Sorority Sweethearts videos for the lucrative stupid-person market.
"It's a real nightmare," said Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of such critically reviled smashes as The Rock, Con Air, and Armageddon. "These days, it's getting harder and harder to underestimate the intelligence of the American public."
In a Syracuse University study conducted last month, reruns of Happy Days, a show derided by 1970s critics as "targeted to third-graders," were deemed "beyond comprehension" by 75 percent of present-day third-graders. The surveyed students expressed frustration with the show's characters, some of which exhibited more than one trait.
"Fonzie rides a motorcycle, but he also likes girls," one subject said. "I don't get it."
The test group also took issue with Happy Days' "boring," non-fatal motorcycle crashes and confusing lack of gunplay and/or graphic nudity.
Dr. George Lowell, director of Syracuse's Center For The Study Of Television & Popular Culture and one of the study's organizers, expressed concern about the test subjects' inability to follow even the simplest stories.
"The biggest problem is not that TV shows' plots are too complicated, but that shows have any plots at all. The presence of a plot, however hackneyed, is not palatable to viewers accustomed to programs like Total Request Live or Jackass, which contain no story structure whatsoever," Lowell said. "What's worse, in two or three years, even TRL will be too hard for most people to grasp, because the e-mail requests scrolling across the screen require them to read."
The media are attempting to respond to the crisis: The eight-minute attention-span limit on network TV programming, a longtime staple of the medium, has been lowered to four minutes. Radio personality Howard Stern has been warned by producers to "dumb down" his daily radio show. And Pamela Anderson Lee's syndicated action program V.I.P. will be retooled to a dialogue-free all-kung-fu/bikini format starting this fall.
Despite the challenges, many remain optimistic. "America has stood tall as the world leader in spoon-feeding mindless swill to the uneducated, sub-literate masses, and we will continue to do so," Viacom president Mel Karmazin said. "Nobody is better at pandering to people's basest tendencies than this great nation's entertainment industry, and if our material isn't stupid enough for them, then, by God, we'll use good old American know-how to make the product even worse."