Cultural Ground Zero
If you aren’t familiar with the concept of cultural ground zero (a term I owe to authors JD Cowan and Brian Niemeier), it is the idea that the major entertainment industries reached a zenith, and after this, quality began to decrease, and all trends lost their forward momentum. The exact year is 1997, in case you were wondering, though the video game industry continued to progress for another ten years on the back of new technology and industry growth, reaching its own ground zero in 2007. For most media, 1997 was the last year consumers could reasonably expect things to be better than the year before.
The causes of ground zero are many, but all of them, save for one (the internet), are the result of the corporate system itself.
By 1997 Clear Channel had achieved a near-monopoly on radio, which according to FCC rules designed to stifle competition (basically, you can’t open more than one radio station playing a certain type of music in a geographic area), meant that in any given town, Clear Channel would decide what music people would listen to in every genre. The music industry achieved record profits in the 1990s but did not necessarily gain record consumer satisfaction. The meme of the day (though we didn’t have that word yet) was buying a $20 CD with one good song on it—the one song they played constantly on the radio. The set cost per unit for Compact Disks had already killed the market for singles, but CDs were hugely profitable for albums because of their low manufacturing cost relative to recording time. Albums ballooned to more than 60 minutes when they used to be a tight 40. In the CD era, a company could throw every song from a session on a disc and hope for a hit rather than selecting the eight best cuts.
While this was incredible for the bottom line, it created a flood of mediocre albums and, just as importantly, artistic stagnation. With no competition in the radio space and no airplay for regional acts, there was no outside influence on the industry. By 1997 local scenes were dead because there were de facto no local radio stations; there were just Clear Channel stations. There would never be another Melvins to influence the promotion of an outsider band like Nirvana to the mainstream.
In the 20 years that followed ground zero, there would be little to no stylistic progression in the major genres—rock, hip-hop, pop, country—and the list of top-earning touring acts would consistently be artists associated with prior decades like the Rolling Stones and Iron Maiden. Stores that pipe in pop music can now play anything made after 1997, and they all fit together; the idea that trendy stores would be playing music that was 20 years old would be a farce in 1995, but it’s what I hear every time I’m in one in the 2020s. Differing trends since then have been short-lived and quickly forgotten, and are also usually recycling sound from pre-ground zero decades. None of them stuck around to be significant sub-genres. Does anyone remember Mumford and Sons? What about dubstep?
The movie industry likewise reached a peak and began to stagnate in the late 1990s, with the summer “blockbuster” season spilling into a year-round cycle of big-budget studio-streamlined action movies written with a narrow range of plots and with relatively short run-times (commonly 105 minutes, but that shrank to 90 minutes by 2000) in order to maximize daily showings. Franchise sequels, which consumers expected to be bigger and better than previous entries, were more often than not disappointments, with such duds as the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World in 1997 and the still very profitable but fan-derided Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1998. Stagnation set in slower than the music industry, but it is notable that 20 years later, we saw sequels in both the Jurassic Park and Star Wars franchise in theaters, with both movies being disappointments. Both films were also totally divorced from their original creators—proper examples of a formulaic corporate, rather than an artistic, product.
As of 2023, there are a total of 32 films in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” a franchise that began in 2008 with “Iron Man.” The dying phase of the film industry is also the phase with the most intense milking of successful intellectual properties, and this reached a new level in 2015. The MCU had 11 films released between 2016 and 2019, with sequels generally considered lower quality than the previous six years. Star Wars released five films between December 2015 and 2019 and then began to make a slew of T.V. series for the Disney+ streaming service, and virtually all of these were high production quality but woefully lacking in story. Star Trek was resurrected with reboots, a prequel series, and a sequel series, again of high production value but poor story construction. Again, very little here originates after 1997. The MCU is primarily adapting comic stories from the 1960s through 1980s.
These examples don’t include the numerous sequels and tie-ins from the 1980s and 90s franchises—Alien, Blade Runner, and Terminator, to name a few; Fast and Furious 10 is set to hit theaters this year, but rumors suggest it might be split into three movies. The defining attribute of cinema after 2000 is the constant reuse of high-concept franchises and ideas from the 1980s and 90s. Budgets soar, but with little to show for it. The more invested, the more there is a need for a guaranteed return. Winner must take all, and Hollywood no longer seems to have the artistic talent or stamina to risk something new.
The later 1990s were also interesting for the movie industry because home video rental, an industry that had begun in the 1980s with VHS tapes, peaked. Blockbuster Video stores were ubiquitous and popular, but they served the winner-take-all nature of their namesake. They drove smaller stores with more diverse back catalogs out of business by emphasizing the newest movies in their stores. The big hits that just left theaters moved into Blockbuster Video, often exclusively for a time. Consumers were drawn to the hype of the newest movie, and were not likely to patronize two stores at once. What they lost was the ability to find older, more obscure movies. Consumer options, and therefore the marketability of b-movie genres in the home video space, decreased to allow for more lowest-common-denominator hits.
American comics deserve a special mention here as well. A general decline in the industry in the 1990s caused by a decrease in quality and a loss of business sense resulted in the two largest publishers of comics, D.C. and Marvel, trimming all traditional genres and withdrawing into the superhero monogenre at the end of the decade. Today shipping a few thousand books is viewed as a success, as opposed to a few hundred thousand when Jim Shooter ran Marvel in the 1980s. In 1997, the very year of Cultural Ground Zero, the hegemonic Marvel Comics went bankrupt and was bought by Toybiz.
There are several reasons for the decline. First, a loss of marketing ability by the big publishers. The big shift happened in Marvel in 1987 when Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter was fired after spending the previous decade bringing Marvel to unrivaled financial success, which he executed by maintaining strict deadlines, keeping stories on track by maintaining creative control, and incentivizing talent with royalty options. In short, it was a return to financial success by returning to the corporate mindset that defined the pulp era and “golden age” of comics: give the people what they want and lots of it. Clashes with the creative side ultimately got Shooter fired, and while there was a seeming boom in the 1990s due to collector speculation, sales declined, and issues began to ship late once again. Stories also went wild due to lack of creative oversight, with the infamous Spiderman “Clone Saga” nearly killing the most popular superhero comic of the 1990s.
There was also a creative exodus in 1992 to Image Comics, a publisher founded by veteran Marvel artists such as Erik Larsen, Rob Liefield, and Jim Lee. They published the style of comic that had taken hold at Marvel and D.C. after the Shooter era: art-focused superhero stories drawn by star artists with little story direction or oversight from company leadership. After initial success, they declined in the late 90s. Their model, a hybrid of creator-owned and corporate, was perhaps a decade too early. The focus on ego art couldn’t compete with the corporate model on its own turf without a tool like the internet to hit small market segments, especially as the market itself shrank.
At the same time, the business shifted from a newsstand and spinner-rack-focused distribution model, where books would appear in drug stores, groceries, and convenience stores, to a specialty shop or “direct distribution” method. At this time, there emerged a sole distributor of comics: Diamond Comics, which had a de-facto monopoly on wholesale. Comic readers in the 90s could no longer pick up the latest issue of X-Men at Walgreens; they had to drive to (an often seedy) shop in some other part of town that sold only comics. Comics began to increase in price, moving from under a dollar to nearly five dollars by the end of the 1990s. Quality increased in some ways, notably stiff foil covers and slick magazine-style pages that better showed off the new digital color techniques of the computer era. However, the pulp emphasis (indeed, up through 1993, comics were printed on cheap pulp newsprint) on volume and cheap entertainment departed. The original market segment (young boys) was replaced with young men; there was no “next generation” of comic readers after ground zero.
Boys in the 1990s had other entertainment options besides comics, including the rising video game industry. The entire comic industry after 1997 was eventually relegated to a back catalog to be farmed for new screen adaptations rather than being a force in its own right. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe grew to be the biggest movie hegemon in history, comic sales lagged. Comics died a different death from music, but auspiciously a concurrent one.
Book publishing likewise had a similar trajectory to other industries, with megastores taking over the market in the 1990s, Barnes and Noble and Borders being the two biggest. Sales of hardbacks doubled in the 1990s, peaking in 1995. This is significant because popular books were usually released first in hardback (with the highest margins), then trade paperback (a large cut, usually 6×9), then mass-market paperback (the “pocket” paperback with a much smaller cut and cheaper paper). The shift means sales of new hit books doubled. Genre fiction, by contrast, was dominated by paperbacks that often never had a hardback release and were often excluded from bestseller lists because of their format. The shift of the late corporate model was here, like in other areas, toward people consuming a smaller variety of media and a greater degree of “winner-take-all.” The death of smaller, local stores, which typically also sold used books, accelerated this trend.
The megastores accomplished the assassination of their smaller competition by looking beyond the model of the time of bookstores as specialist distributors (itself a change from the newsstand model that defined the pulp era prior to 1950) and turned their stores into multipurpose affairs with large footprints in prime real estate locations. Both behemoths added coffee shops and positioned themselves as stops for gifts, music, and software. They hosted relaxed live music and celebrity book signings, making the store a place where customers would want to spend their time as well as their money. Like Best Buy, once the largest music retailer in America, the point was to target casual shopping customers rather than smaller market segments wanting specialist genre fiction.
The late nineties were big on the publishing side, too, with 1997 being at the center of the storm. Continuing conglomeration trends, Penguin bought Berkley Publishing at the end of 1996. Random House was bought by Bartelsmann, which owned Doubleday and had been collecting houses since the 1980s. HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Hachette made similar acquisitions of smaller publishers and audiobook firms between 1997 and 1999, and soon there was a “Big Six Publishers,” which would become the “Big Five” in 2013 when Penguin was sold to Bartelsmann: Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, and Simon and Shuster.
It is not obvious that these publishers print all the books you see in the big stores, because they own many imprints that have their own branding and genre specializations, such as Double Day, Tor, DAW, and Harlequin. The big publishers themselves are part of large-scale corporate media hegemons. Bartelsmann, a private German conglomerate, owns Penguin Random House, and Macmillan is owned by Holtzbrinck, another private German publishing conglomerate. Paramount owns Simon and Schuster. Harper Collins is owned by News Corp, which owns Fox News as well as, until recently, all other Fox media divisions, including 21st Century Fox. Hachette is a part of Lagardere, another international media corporation. The “Big Five” are into a lot more than books and many more markets than the anglosphere.
Big stores could make or break a wide book through preferential display; publishers could pump the business of bookstores by scheduling events like author signings. A soft payola emerged from the condensed retailers and publishers where smaller publishers were very much on the outside, perhaps able to get books stocked but not sold since they were often buried in the stacks at the back of the store rather than displayed prominently as a gift idea. Rather than a diversity of market offerings, the late corporate period pushes the winner-take-all approach by restricting consumer choice in stores and media. The publishing industry was at its peak in profitability and the capacity to make best-selling hits, but like with music, that peak would be short-lived. The biggest concentrated profits also came at the expense of the consumer compared to earlier periods where the consumer benefited the most from the corporate model. Diversity was crushed along with the competition, but everything would soon change.
Next time we’ll deal with the Corporate IP Death Cycle. Stay tuned!