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Susan Boyle: Bigger Than the Super Bowl?

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Having been on vacation, I believe I am the last pop-culture writer in America not to have expressed an opinion about Susan Boyle. During the last week, the Britain’s Got Talent contestant has gone through a full-media cycle, and then some.

Like almost anyone else, I loved watching her TV-debut video, her silencing the sniggerers in the audience, her brimming sense of unpretentious confidence. I also got a little sick of all the commenters feeling good about themselves for feeling good about her—there comes a point where declaring that Susan Boyle is a hero for proving her talent despite her outward appearance becomes as patronizing as dismissing her because of her outward appearance. I finally think it’s pretty funny that the scene was received as a repudiation of the culture of reality TV, since it was consciously set up by the producers of a reality TV show, well aware of how it was likely to play out (after all, it’s not as if Boyle dropped from the sky onto the stage with no notice). But that’s all been pretty well hashed over, so I’ll leave it at that. 

But there is one more interesting aspect of the growing Boyle phenomenon: it shows that mass-media experiences still exist in the fragmented-media era—they’re just different.

In my TIME essay recently about the decline of broadcast TV, I wrote that “we don’t all sit en masse for Must-See TV, but cultural moments — from late-night TV to the news to American Idol — are disseminated widely through YouTube and cable.”  

The Boyle clip is one such example, and it’s a doozy. Mashable reports that the clip is on track to eclipse 100 million online views (if it hasn’t already by now). And that’s not counting replays on talk shows, news shows, and on and on—factor those in, and you’ve probably got a bigger audience than the U.S. viewership of the Super Bowl. Keep in mind, we’re talking here about a scene from a British reality show, something that would scarcely have gotten American airplay a few years ago. Now it’s arguably a bigger, more ubiquitous cultural phenomenon than anything on American TV. 

What this means, first, is that while there may no longer be any primetime series that reach 30 million viewers on a regular basis, individual cultural moments can reach far more—thanks to some of the very forces that have fractured the TV audience. It also means that more of the power, and the influence over how those moments are received, falls to the excerpters and commentators who reproduce, repost and embed the videos. And those moments are more likely to be ones that tell a story in a short time: the Boyle video worked so well because it set up a character, conflict, triumph and resolution in scant minutes.

Today, in other words, when Britain’s got talent, the rest of the world has it too. We’ve still got mass culture, too, but a very different kind.

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