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Cookie-cut entertainment

Not long ago, films were creative, television was inspired and music was consistently innovative. Sound like a tough sell? The time-honored tendency to look fondly on the past--a sort of 20/20 vision through rose-colored glasses--seems a cultural and perhaps human inclination. Our parents trekked to school up hill both ways in the snow--even if they lived in Florida. But romanticizing the past is not always such a leap of nostalgia-driven faith.

The entertainment industry provides evidence that maybe things really were better 20 or 30 years ago. With technological innovation, media products are changing, often at the price of creativity. Through continuous cloning, the DNA of artistry has begun to unravel.

Guaranteed blockbusters, prepackaged programming and ready-made recording stars are populating an increasingly commercial entertainment landscape.

The marriage of business and art--ill-fated but at one time successfully hidden--has grown increasingly transparent, leaving little room for divergence or innovation.

What happened? A segmented analysis of three cornerstones of entertainment--the film, television and music industries--diagnoses the problem and demonstrates why things are changing.

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On the big screen, refried themes abound, with nearly a dozen high-profile spoofs and sequels landing in theaters during the summer months. The third installment of Jurassic Park is trouncing its way through familiar territory, Eddie Murphy chats with cats again in Dr. Dolittle 2, and The Mummy returned for more Egyptian mayhem. The original Dolittle was itself a remake, much like Tim Burton's forthcoming millennial spin on Planet of the Apes. Shrek, the breakout CGI sensation, marks a not-so-subtle parody of Disney-brand animated storytelling. Scary Movie 2 fits both categories, as the summer's only sequel of a spoof. Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker strap in for upcoming Lethal Weapon rip-off Rush Hour 2, and Jason Biggs and company will serve up another sex-laden slice of American Pie.

Even aging Aussie star Paul Hogan took another crack at Crocodile Dundee.

What's behind the repetition? Big-ticket film budgets swelled in the 1990s, bringing the average sticker price of a wide-release production to nearly $60 million. That means the stakes are higher, and risky first-time ventures are becoming rare commodities.

Increasingly, production companies have opted for more "sure things," and sequels, remakes and parodies have proven a profitable form of cinematic indigestion.

Today, one of the happiest words in Hollywood is "franchise." That was Fox's plan with last year's X-Men, and Columbia has similar designs for another Marvel Comics crossover, next summer's Spiderman. Warner Brothers is working to revive its once-juggernaut Batman series, much as MGM resurrected the unstoppable 007. Often successful, sequels and franchise films are money in the bank. It's no wonder production companies smile upon a never-ending story.

Parodies or "spoofs" are Hollywood's ultimate form of flattery. The parasitic productions come in waves, but their emergence usually marks the end of periods of creative redundancy. Scary Movie slammed the horror genre just after it crested, and Shrek's take on toons arrives as Disney's summer stinker, Atlantis, sinks below sea level. In essence, spoofs are a wake-up call, a reminder of just how formulaic and predictable things have become.

While sequels and copycatting are now cinematic tradition, things haven't always been so bad. Sequels themselves didn't emerge prominently until the 1970s, when blockbusters like The Godfather and Jaws offered up second helpings.

The Star Wars trilogy solidified the trend, and by the 1980s, ready-made onscreen series like Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon were proving sequels could be big business. But unlike today's slew of refrains, first-generation follow-ups often garnered critical acclaim. (Some even argue The Godfather II and The Empire Strikes Back improved upon their predecessors.) Today, celebrated or reviled, top grossers are fair game for sequels, and the glut of extended play has left the film industry with a shrinking slate of original productions. If this trend continues, future summers could find T. Rex chasing E.T. on the deck of the Titanic.

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Television has long been entertainment's most formulaic medium, but recent tube trends are making sitcoms and dramas even duller. Reality television is still the hot commodity, and the propagation of copycat programming continues unabated. The biblical spawning goes something like this: The Real World begat Road Rules and inspired Survivor, which brought Big Brother. The CBS duo paved the way for The Mole and Fear, with Temptation Island and Boot Camp adding more exploitative twists to the lineage. That's not to mention Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which begat Greed, 21 and The Weakest Link. In all, it's hard to find a program without "real" people anymore. No wonder the Screen Actors Guild went on strike.

Ironically, the homogenization of popular television owes greatly to the diversification of viewing habits. As cable has become a viable competitor to traditional broadcast networks, the Big Three (or Four, counting Fox; Six, with UPN and the WB; Seven, if you've heard of PAX) are chasing smaller audience shares. As with the film industry, television series production has become a high-stakes game, and hits are harder to come by. For 40 years, ABC, NBC and CBS jockeyed to launch the next big thing, and a string of audience grabbers stretched from I Love Lucy through All in the Family and The Cosby Show. In the 1990s, that process began to slow, and the last crop of big hits--Friends and ER--is now dying on the vines.

In the face of tumbling Nielsens, the networks have responded in two fashions.

The first has been to prolong the lifespan of existing hits. The Simpsons is chugging into a thirteenth season, Law & Order is coming up on its eleventh and ER will air at least three more. While these shows remain popular, even a drooping fade-out like The Drew Carey Show has a new lease on life. Long-term renewal also means price inflation. The recently renegotiated contract of Frasier star and Cheers alum Kelsey Grammer--who has been playing psychiatrist Dr. Crane for nearly two decades--breaks an industry record, guaranteeing the thesp $75 million for three more years with the sitcom.

The broadcast networks' other strategy has been the continued pursuit and exploitation of anything resembling a popular theme. Recently, the mini bang was Millionaire, then Survivor. While networks have long stolen concepts from each other--the notion of a sitcom is a fine example--the blatant carbon-copy piggybacking of the past two years is practically unprecedented. The reality/game show trend is particularly appealing to the networks. Production costs for the ubiquitous programming are dirt cheap compared to those of traditional primetime fodder. Regis can wear a new tie every episode.

But what of the diversification of televised offerings? What about The Sopranos and Sex and the City? Premium cable nets like HBO and Showtime have led the vanguard in niche marketing, the next wave in television programming. By cornering demographic slices--women, the rich, blacks, gays, et cetera--programmers have found their pot of gold in specialization. The major networks, accustomed to millions of eyeballs and market dominance, have been slower to adapt. But with cable pressures mounting and new hits s1carce, even ABC could end up the American Basketball Channel.

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Much has been written about the explosive bubble-gum pop of the last three years, but despite a slowdown, full-scale upheaval is nowhere on the horizon. The Backstreet Boys, 'NSync, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera--the movement's most popular acts--are still selling millions, though radio has begun to cold-shoulder their newer offerings. The list of heirs apparent is considerable. Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson are second-tier iconoclasts, alongside 98 Degrees and LFO. Below them are publicly manufactured acts like O-Town (from ABC's Making the Band) and the gushing girls of Eden's Crush (from the WB's Popstars). Keep digging and you'll find Hoku, Dream, BBMak and twin crooners Evan and Jaron. The primordial goop of one-hit wonders is teeming with new entries. Everyone's a smash away from superstardom, and the onslaught of Bop! covers and TRL visits continues ad nauseam.

Where did all this adolescent energy come from? Teen acts and boy bands are certainly no new phenomenon. A glimpse back to the Beatles and their televised copycats, the Monkees, provides proof that teenagers have always been screaming and fainting.

But there's definitely something different about the current crop of pretty faces: Their scale is larger, and their stranglehold on the music industry is more considerable. In roughly four years, the Backstreet Boys have sold more than thirty million discs in the United States alone.

'NSync are hot on their heels, holding the industry's first-week sales record for their 2000 effort, No Strings Attached. Pop princess Britney Spears has become the best-selling teenage artist in music history, and Christina Aguilera is on track with Mariah Carey in her conquest of the singles charts. From Bobby Darin to Debbie Gibson, no teen acts have dominated like the current generation. Even the Beatles are getting a run for their money.

Pundits have offered a variety of explanations for the teen-pop explosion: The strength of the economy is fueling a desire for "feel-good" music (i.e. There's nothing to complain about.). The bumper crop of teenagers--the "echo" boom of the '60s generation--has heightened demand. The music has an enduring and resonant pop sensibility.

Hmm, stop there. Is there anything creative about this music making? Have the high-brow esthetes who criticize "accessibility" issued misplaced maledictions? Alas, even the friendliest ears would admit to repetitive, theme-driven sounds among the current pop acts--first kisses, broken hearts, regretted infidelity. And why not? Teenage girls will always like cute boys. And teenage boys will always obsess over sex kittens. Successful formulas are tried and true; the proof is in the numbers.

The artists' litmus test will be their growth process post-Clearasil. Where these acts end up should speak volumes about their creative boundaries. And does anybody honestly believe The Backstreet Boys will be any more enduring than David Cassidy? Regardless of their final destination, the current team of teen-targeted performers has engulfed the airways, and the reverberating din of their harmonized chorus is leaving little room for dissonance.

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