- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson can make studying Paris Hilton sound downright scholarly.

Mr. Thompson, founder of the university’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture, is the journalist’s go-to guy for a ready quote on the entertainment media’s madness du jour.

He is the Norman Ornstein or Marshall Wittman, if you will, of the pop culture beat.

Don’t believe us? Try Googling the good professor — just make sure to stretch in between readings. It’s going to take a while.

The 46-year-old can extemporize with ease on everything from “Everwood” to “The Apprentice” and sound as if he’s been studying each for years.

In fact, he has.

Mr. Thompson began his academic career as an art history major but found the amount of literature dedicated to the subject daunting.

“I thought I could study the history of television as an art form … there were three books [on the subject],” he says. “In one weekend you could get yourself completely up to speed.”

Not everyone agreed “art” and “television” belonged in the same sentence.

“In the academic field at large there was a lot of resistance,” he says. “I was besmirching their ivory-covered walls.”

He eventually found a welcoming home at Syracuse University.

The center, which dates back to 1997, involves courses, seminars, conferences and books dealing with mass media. It also collects a wealth of television goodies, from oral histories from the medium’s early giants (Steve Allen, Milton Berle) to scripts and other primary source materials.

Mr. Thompson, a former Ferris wheel operator, says it’s the center’s mission to put popular culture in context.

It’s easy to wring our hands over how a singing disaster like “American Idol’s” William Hung can snare a record contract, but it really isn’t all that different from vaudeville’s novelty singers known for badly belting out a tune, he says.

The vaudeville reference isn’t accidental.

“To understand TV you had to understand the radio before it,” he says. “To understand radio, you’ve got to understand vaudeville.”

Mr. Thompson teaches one large lecture class a week, leaving him enough time for TiVo and fielding media requests.

“I’ll return calls in the order they come in, whether it’s from a high school reporter or CBS,” he says.

He never knows when his voice mail will be full.

Sometimes, like when “The Sopranos” returns after an extended hibernation, he expects an avalanche of media requests.

Other times the calls catch him off guard, like the morning after Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at Super Bowl XXXVIII.

His self-created gig does have its perks, like watching titillating fare such as “Temptation Island” with no guilt.

“I can justify it by saying I need to watch this stuff,” he says.

Today, it’s harder than ever to stay up to speed on the latest pop culture happenings.

“Every day you try to keep your head above water,” says Mr. Thompson, who reads an average of four to five books on the media each week. “There’s an enormous tidal wave of new material coming in. At some point, you have to pick and choose.”

The biggest change in our popular culture since he began studying it a quarter century ago is its ongoing fragmentation.

Movies, television and radio built “the greatest consensus culture the world had ever seen,” he says. “You had everybody feeding at the same cultural trough. Even the medieval Catholic Church didn’t have this kind of grip.”

Today, with the Internet and the proliferation of cable choices, that’s no longer the case.

The change has meant better television product, rising celebrity worship and an increase in the kind of tawdry entertainment that gives moral leaders sleepless nights.

Whatever happens next, Mr. Thompson will be ready with a pithy quote that will make the reader think.

And some of his peers will remain skeptical about his whole field of research.

“Those voices remain shrill and loud, but they’re getting fewer and fewer,” he says of his detractors.

“I’ll return calls in the order they come in, whether it’s from a high school reporter or CBS,”

Robert Thompson, pop culture professor

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