Springsteen released his Human Touch album in 1992, with one of the songs being “57 Channels (and nothing on)”. Now that I re-read that last sentence, it’s a bit anachronistic. That being said, Springsteens lyrics on this song were indeed prescient.
The reason I’m bringing this song up is because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the media, and specifically the war that President Trump is waging against the media, and the media against the president. No one is coming out a winner on this one, although I’m giving the President a slight lead in the battle for the simple reason that the media (taken broadly) has fallen so far in stature in the 26 years that Springsteen wrote this song.
I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills
With a truckload of hundred thousand dollar bills
Man came by to hook up my cable TV
We settled in for the night my baby and me
We switched ’round and ’round ’til half-past dawn
There was fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on
According to Wikipedia, Springsteen wrote in ‘… a September 2014 post on Facebook discussing the video, … “Shot back in the quaint days of only 57 channels and no flat screen TVs, I have no idea what we were aiming for in this one outside of some vague sense of ‘hipness’ and an attempt at irony. Never my strong suit, it reads now to me as a break from our usual approach and kind of a playful misfire.” Playful misfire maybe, but I think Springsteen was on to something. If 1992 are the ‘quant old days’, then I hate to say what the late 60s were, because that’s when I was a kid and we actually only effectively had 7 channels. In New York, we had 2,4,5,7, 9, 11, and 13 which equated to CBS, NBC, WNEW, ABC, WOR, PIX, and PBS. There were channels on UHF as well, but the signals were so weak that the only time I remember my father getting one of those channels to come on without interference was during the eye of a hurricane after he had wrapped tin foil on the rabbit ears on top of the TV.
Well now home entertainment was my baby’s wish
So I hopped into town for a satellite dish
I tied it to the top of my Japanese car
I came home and I pointed it out into the stars
A message came back from the great beyond
There’s fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on
Here’s the thing though – back then most people believed the media. No one questioned Walter Cronkite. Now there’s probably someone out there that will say “No – that not’s true – the media was questioned.”, but I can tell you that, generally speaking, people did not talk about the media back then as they do today – they might not always have agreed with Walter, but they didn’t talk about him the way that many reasonable folks talk and think about todays media.
Why is that? Sure, media outlets today clearly do not have the same standards as they did back then. Overt political side-taking is much more prevalent today than it was then. Shameless revolving doors from politics to the media is worse than from the Pentagon to industry. But I think it’s more. I think we have too many media outlets, and the law of supply and demand is taking over. The greater the supply, the lower the price you can charge. The lower the price – the lower the profit. We are seeing the commoditization of the media.
Well we might’a made some friends with some billionaires
We might’a got all nice and friendly if we’d made it upstairs
All I got was a note that said “bye-bye John
Our love is fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”
When you are selling a commodity there’s two rules – hold on to your customer for dear life and constantly cut costs. Is anyone really surprised that the media has splintered into separate political thought groups designed to appeal to specific political positions? You shouldn’t be.
So I bought a .44 magnum it was solid steel cast
And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast
‘Til my TV lay in pieces there at my feet
And they busted me for disturbing the almighty peace
Judge said “What you got in your defense son?”
“Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”
I can see by your eyes friend you’re just about gone
Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on
We went from 7 channels (and reading books) to 7000 channels (if not more). Anyone with a camera can create their own Youtube channel. Does anyone really think quality and standards can be maintained as you go from 7 to 7000 channels? People are worried about the proliferation of “Fake News”. They shouldn’t be. It’s bound to happen when you have this many distribution channels. What they should be worried about is the lack of “Factual News”, which is something we lost on our way to 7000 channels.