THE ELECTRONIC HEARTH DIMS? The coverage of Barack Obama’s inauguration Tuesday was as uninteresting as it was overwrought, but the best thing I read about the event was written by Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times on his blog.

With the Super Bowl in two weeks, it’s worth noting that there aren’t a lot of events that can guarantee the networks massive numbers any more. Football’s biggest game is one, a big deal reality competition show like Idol is another, and a presidential inauguration is still in the running, especially when it’s freighted with so much “history,” as we’ve been so persistently reminded.

A major disaster or news event also counts, but I can remember a day when the list was longer, and included the network TV debut of a blockbuster film, or the final episode of a much-loved TV show, all of which seemed to empty the streets, malls, bars and movie theatres. Hell, I remember when the world seemed to stand still for the funeral of Lyndon Johnson, in the midst of Watergate’s political and social turmoil.

Deggans wonders just how much longer we’ll find ourselves gathered, alone or in a group, in front of the TV as part of some communal ritual of witnessing: “In today's super-fragmented media environment,” he writes, “little beyond American Idol and the Super Bowl can draw us together around TV's electronic hearth. Once upon a time, everyone could remember where they were when news broke that President Kennedy was shot or Saigon had fallen. These days, when even the selection of a vice-president is announced by text message, that memory is gone, swallowed by technology's new ability to bring us instant reporting from just about anywhere to wherever.”

For previous generations, Deggans cites the moon landing as a magnet that drew them to the TV, to which I’d add John F. Kennedy’s assassination and funeral, while before that TV and radio competed as the focus of the public witness. He recalls where he was when the Challenger space shuttle exploded (I was a fresh college drop-out, watching the news on the TV sets in the electronics department at the Simpsons store where I was working), and the 9/11 attacks (in bed talking wedding plans with the woman who’s now my wife.)

Technology moves fast - eight years ago, I would have doubted that my VCR would be gathering dust, replaced by a pumped-up cable box that recorded shows at the touch of a button, or that my CD collection would have been distilled into a hard drive on the top of my computer with a whopping terabyte of memory. As the viewing experience atomizes and the generations accustomed to ritual witnessing move on, that communal sense of a moment will dissolve, as news – and “history” – becomes more commonplace, like text crawl running at the bottom of our screens.

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