America is tuning in to diversity

Is America becoming homogenized? Lots of folks worry that it is -- that a plain-vanilla, one-size-fits-all sameness is creeping across the land.

They assert that cars, jets, and television are wiping away all the nuances of regional distinctiveness. Wherever you go in the nation, they say, all motel rooms, all Interstate exits, nearly all central cities, and most airports look alike. They insist that from Key West, Fla., to Bellingham, Wash., Americans are shopping in nearly identical supermarkets, cooking the same-size hamburgers over the same-size charcoal briquettes, and drinking the same soft drinks. Whatever happened, they moan, to good old American individuality?

They may not need to worry. A couple of weeks ago, in a prep-school gymnasium up in Maine, I saw a trustee give an entire graduating class something he called their ``diplomers.'' You can't get those, I thought, anywhere else in the country.

A few days later, some Midwestern friends visiting a Boston ice cream parlor were mystified by the word ``frappe,'' a New Englandism that means ``milk shake'' -- although in New England a ``milk shake'' is a thin, disappointing concoction of milk and flavoring without a hint of ice cream. Our friends also showed mild alarm over lunch-counter signs advertising ``hot Italians'' -- which they would call ``submarines,'' and others would call ``grinders'' or ``hoagies.'' And, of course, they got into the proverbial entanglements over whether to ask for soda, pop, or tonic.

Thinking it over after they'd gone -- and wondering whether television, especially, has the homogenizing power sometimes attributed to it -- I came upon a most telling table of figures at the end of the ``1985 Nielsen Report on Television.'' It charts the top 10 network prime-time programs (according to a four-week survey in November 1984), as reported in each of nine major US cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, Washington, and Dallas-Fort Worth.

It reveals a most comforting fact: that different cities have serious differences of opinion about what they like best.

Cases in point:

``The Bill Cosby Show.'' This good-humored sitcom about a black family ranked 10th in the nation as a whole. In Philadelphia and Washington, however, it came in third -- while in Detroit (whose black population exceeds that of Philadelphia) it didn't even make the top 10.

``60 Minutes.'' This Sunday current-affairs show, ranked third nationally, topped the chart in Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles -- but didn't register among Chicago's top 10.

``Dallas.'' No. 1 in the nation, this glittering soap of a wealthy Texas family only pulled second place in the city that gave it its name -- where its competitor, ``Dynasty,'' ranked first. Back East, however, Bostonians and New Yorkers apparently can't figure out what on earth all those Texans are going on about: It didn't show up on their charts at all. Eastern-establishment snobbery? Hardly: Of the nine Nielsen cities, the only one that ranked Dallas first was Washington.

``The Tonight Show.'' Johnny Carson's venerable late-night show had no national ranking. Nor did it reach the chart in New York, Detroit, Dallas, or Washington. But it packed them in in Philadelphia, where it ranked second.

``Simon & Simon.'' This action-adventure show ranked ninth across the nation -- but failed to make the charts in any of the Nielsen cities. In that way it resembles another action-adventure show, ``The A-Team,'' which showed up only on Detroit's chart, although it ranked sixth in the nation.

I'll leave it to the social scientists to parse out the deeper meanings here -- whether these choices tell us anything profound about the separate characters of the cities involved. My point is much simpler: that even network television, blanketing the nation, has not yet succeeded in blending the bright hues of American regionalism into a monochrome gray.

A Monday column

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