A Segment of the Whole World Is Watching!

There was a sense on Friday that the whole country was watching the dramatic moments leading up to the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. As Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress reminds us, that sort of thing doesn’t much happen any more absent some immensely galvanizing event:

In 1993, 42.4 million households tuned in to the series finale of Cheers. Last Friday, almost 42 million people tuned in ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel or MSNBC to watch the last hour of the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old who today was charged with using a weapon of mass destruction and malicious destruction of property resulting in death in the bombings a week ago of the Boston Marathon.

In the 1952-1953 second season of I Love Lucy…the show averaged a 67.3 rating, meaning 67.3 percent of American television households were tuned into the show during its time slot. It’s hard to come up with a directly comparable number for Friday night’s news coverage because ratings are done by show rather than in the aggregate, but if 42 million households tuned in to watch the manhunt, that would represent 36.8 percent of America’s 114.2 million television households. Similarly, n Cheers’ fifth season, its highest-rated, the show, which aired from 1986-1987, pulled in an average rating of 27.2, which averaged out to 23.77 million viewers per episode. Friends pulled in an average of 24.50 million viewers per episode in its eighth season, which aired in 2001-2002. But the last year a show that won the Nielsen ratings had a rating of above 20 was 1997-1998, when Seinfeld pulled in a 21.7 rating. In 2011-2012, NBC Sunday Night Football pulled in the crown with a mere 12.9 rating.

There are obviously a lot of very good things about the fact that we aren’t all forced to choose among a tri-opoly of television offerings any more. But as Rosenberg suggests, our shared national treasury of images has taken a turn for the dark side:

It’s fear and morbid curiosity—neither of which are unjustified emotions—that draw us to this kind of chase. In the past it was possible to create enormous audiences through compelling characters and long-established relationships. Now, that seems impossible, and the reactions that bring us together are darker. That doesn’t mean our responses aren’t genuine or valid. But it’s a shame that we’re sharing collective terror and anxiety on a greater scale than we’re sharing joy, transport, and simple humor.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.