Tuesday, October 14, 2003

He's dean of pop culture

Media embraces Syracuse prof who can wrest meaning from TV

By David Bauder
The Associated Press

Robert Thompson is kicking into overdrive. His topic? Homer Simpson.

The cartoon dad is one of the great characters of American literature, Thompson says. He compares Simpson to Mark Twain, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. He even slips in a biblical reference.

"There is a nobility to him," said Thompson, who runs the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "With the mere promise of another doughnut, he will get up to fight another day. It's something almost Job-like."

This is vintage Thompson.

Scholarly pursuit

Few scholars take pop culture so seriously, can place it in historical context and wrest meaning from the mundane quite like him, even if Thompson occasionally careens out of control.

He's become one of the nation's most-quoted experts on the Meaning of Television, a fixture on the tube he studies. Only Jim Boeheim, coach of the NCAA championship basketball team, rivals him as a Syracuse University figure known to the outside world.

On the day the first Survivor concluded in 2000, Thompson did 47 media interviews. On the next day, he did 40 more.

Thompson commands probably the nicest office at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, with a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the campus, shelves lined with hundreds of books, a stove and, of course, three television sets.

He just moved in; the university decided his old, smaller office looked too cramped and cluttered when camera crews stopped by.

Growing up in the Chicago area, the 44-year-old Thompson knew he wanted to be a college professor, but wasn't sure what to teach. At the University of Chicago, he was getting ready to write a dissertation on the art of the Renaissance when confronted with shelves and shelves of books on the same topic.

What could he add that hadn't been said before?

"I was fairly cocky," he recalled, "but I wasn't that cocky."

He watched mostly PBS those days. The black-and-white set he had at school - which he still has in his Syracuse office - only received PBS and NBC. Thompson made time every week to watch CHiPS, the cheesy police drama, and wondered why smart people loved dumb television.

A career was born. Teaching about television, he found his way to the State University of New York at Cortland (wrestler Mankind was a student), and learned the hard way that not everyone thought it respectable for academics.

He was fired during a budget crunch in 1991, his job deemed not central to the school's mission.

Newhouse School Dean David Rubin believed that for present-day students, television was as worthy a topic for study as American literature. He hired Thompson, staring down the naysayers.

"They are the same people who think the Internet is going to go away, that it's just a passing fad," Rubin said.

There are few television shows Thompson can't talk about, few TV trends he misses. Thompson tapes several prime-time shows a night and watches them in his office the next day.

"If this is your main job, it's not that hard to keep up with this stuff," he said.

Thompson, married with one child, teaches two courses in the fall and one in the spring.

Something of a savant, he'll immerse himself in topics where he considers himself deficient. Thompson, who's been trying to broaden his general knowledge of pop culture, recently decided he didn't know enough about the history of the circus. So he read about 40 books on it.

Thompson believes the quality of television today far surpasses any long-ago "golden age."

He believes television brings families closer together, instead of driving them apart.

He also sees television within an even broader sweep of history: never before has something figuratively united so many people as when televisions became an essential appliance and had only a few channels. Before most people ever realized that, the moment was gone.

Now, with more than 100 channels commonplace in many homes, there's less to unify the country.

"It's like we made this exquisite vase and we pushed it off the mantelpiece," Thompson said.

Thompson can toss off great quotes casually. Reporters love him for that, for his almost unfailing expertise and for being reliably available. He considers that one of the most important parts of his job.

"A professor is someone who collects a body of knowledge and teaches it to other people," he said. "If I take my subject matter seriously and my job seriously, what I should be doing is finding as many people as I can who will listen to it. To an extent, it's a professor's dream come true. It extends the classroom beyond the room itself."

Asked once by a reporter if there was any subject he felt uncomfortable talking about, Thompson paused and said, "hockey."

That earned him a tutorial from members of the local minor league hockey team.

Master of sound bite

Rubin concedes there are some people at Syracuse who are jealous of Thompson's ubiquity in the media.

"There are a lot of quotable people who really don't know anything," he said.

"Then there are a lot of people, particularly in academia, who know a lot, but really don't know how to work with the press and can't put it into bites that can be used. Bob's genius is both."

Although Thompson will still get some incredulous looks when introduced to people on campus - you do WHAT for a living? - he said the idea that television is not suitable for scholarly research is getting old.

But, actually, he doesn't mind when it becomes an issue. It gives him another chance to talk about TV publicly.

"I think we've won that argument most of the time," he said.

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