Would (fill in the celebrity) have been famous in today's mulit-media society?

I took my kids to see the Ringling Bros/Barnum and Baily Circus this weekend.

The theme of the show I saw was built around a very skilled performer with the stage named “Bello.” Though I had never heard of him, his skills were amazing. Later research on my part indicated that he was in fact a rather well renowned performer (Time magazine’s clown of year, if you believe it!)

It occurred to me that growing up, some of the performers of this same circus were household names.

Gunter Gebel Williams and Emmett Kelly came to mind.

This led me back to another thought I had some time ago: that the more channels of entertainment we have, the less interesting our “celebrities” become. Our fractured interests either allow small groups to worship the top of their field (Alan Moore is a comic book god. Ty Murray is one of the greatest bull-riders ever. etc.) or pander to the lowest common denominator.

Back in my day (I always feel older as the month of August approaches, so please forgive my ranting*), when we had three channels, we might have all known who Bello was. If ABC, CBS, or NBC chose to put someone interesting on TV, there was a good chance they would become famous, and remain in the public eye.

Hell, Johnny Carson made dozens of people famous simply because HE found them interesting (Joyce Brothers, Jack Hannah,etc. Although Charro baffles the mind).

I think it is sad, because instead of interesting celebs, who actually had something unique to offer (Hannah taught me a lot about interesting animals), we have Frankenstein celebs from the worst kind of marketing shop, who are bland but beautiful (“That’s hot” springs to mind).

Who has become famous recently simply because they are interesting? Let’s cut out singers and actors (many of whom are not interesting), as they are famous for other reasons. I’m talking general interest celebs.

My go to guy on “wouldn’t be famous today?” is Evel Knievel. Without Wide World of Sports, he’d be a nobody. Today, a daredevil would relegated to ESPN Eight ('the Ocho!"). Instead, he is a household name for someone daring and possibly reckless.

Would we have ever heard of Milton Friedman today? How the heck was an ECONOMIST famous?

Even more alarming, in modern times I doubt people would pay much attention to some physicist who worked at Princeton. With fewer channels, however, he became so famous that he was able to take Time’s Man of the Century. Today, we would flip past that nerd with funky hair, and go watch The Hills.

Who do you find fascinating that would not have made the cut in modern times? I’ll bet there are some big names that wouldn’t be remotely famous today.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the multi-media. I like being able to “specialize” my viewing habits. But the cost of this opportunity makes me feel sad and old.

Now excuse me. I think I hear some kids playing on my lawn. I must address this situation.
*Duly noted that as ANY month approaches, one does gets older.

Stephan Hawking is a world famous physicist. But if he wasn’t disabled he probably wouldn’t be a general-purpose celebrity.

And your example of Milton Friedman is odd, because he’s not exactly a household name. He’s more along the lines of Alan Moore. If you aren’t interested in comic books you’ve never heard of Alan Moore. If you aren’t interested in economics and the interesection of politics and economics, you’ve never heard of Milton Friedman.

Generally physicists and economists and the like are only famous if they write popular books and then parlay that into being a usual-suspect talking head.

Friedman isn’t famous anymore, but he was famous in the late 70s/early 80s when he had a ten part series on PBS which accompanied one of his best selling books.

Today, I agree with you that he would be on par with Alan Moore.

Actually, probably LESS famous because I doubt his books on monetary policy would be adapted into a film by Zack Snyder! :slight_smile:

Bennet Cerf would be toiling in obscurity as a mere mega-successful publisher without What’s My Line?. Today, the only people who would know his name would be the ones who watch Power Lunch on CNBC.

I had a professor in college who gave a whole lecture about fame vs. renown. He said that if you’re known for your work (Hawking, Friedman, arguably Alan Moore), you’re renowned. If you’re known for who you are (Madonna, Elvis, The Queen of England), you’re famous. It’s a subtle distinction in some cases, and it could technically be disproven in about 10 seconds on m-w.com if you wanted to nitpick it, but the lecture as a whole made a lot of sense.
middleman: I’m very curious about your age, being young enough to have kids who want to go to the circus with you, but old enough to remember having only 3 channels on your tv.

I’d guess he’s about my age (41) – possible to have circus-age kids, and I also remember having only three networks (not counting UHF channels) throughout high school (my parents were too cheap for cable). Doesn’t seem so curious.

This is a tricky question to answer; obviously celebrities of yesteryear were a product of the culture and tastes of their times. You couldn’t simply transplant them to today without accounting for the change in the public’s taste in entertainment. (For instance, take an actor from Shakespeare’s company such as Richard Burbage; his performances today would seem … well, bombastic and over the top. That was just how they did it then.)

Roy Orbison — probably not. Hell of a songwriter, unique voice … but Ugly with a capital Ug. He would instead have been a figure in the background, writing songs for somebody pretty like Milli Vanilli.

Scott Joplin — doubtful. He was a handsome man, but he was also a black pianist during a time when largely-white America wasn’t ready to have a black man in their living rooms on a TV screen. He was also a passionate advocate for African Americans and staged a musical with a black heroine. Today, his compositions are audio-only, which in this video-driven age is a difficult sell; it’s hard to guess how his passion for his race would manifest in this market.

Charles Lindbergh — don’t think so. He would be pretty much a one-trick pony today, a clip on YouTube of some guy who occasionally flies a plane but mostly spouts self-promoting racist propaganda. The baby kidnapping would appear and disappear from the news in the same day.

Abigail Van Buren — of Dear Abby fame. These days, she’d be a blog with a readership of about 60.

Would Albert Einstein be famous today? Certainly a brilliant man and instantly recognizable
but how many physicists are well known today {besides Stephen Hawking who has Lou Gehrig’s Disease)?

There was a story recently on the horse Dan Patch in a recent Sports Illustrated http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2008/more/05/14/dan.patch0519/ Made $1million at at time when the best baseball player Ty Cobb made $12 million. While thoroughbreds nowadays can become big (if one could win the triple crown), trotters (harness racing horses) like Dan Patch are faceless.

  Horse racing used to be more popular than it is now (champions wouldn't be put out to stud as quickly, fewer places to gamble back then). So jockeys as Johnny Longden, Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker were more widely known than todays.

Lawmen such as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson must have been popular in their times, when their adventures (real or imagined, usuallly the latter) well chronicled while they were active.