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HARD TO TELL WHAT WE HAVE IN COMMON

A big fat cliche we live by: Names make news.

Well, OK. Sure. But which names? Try these:

A. Brian Billick.

B. Barbara Link LaRou.

C. Heitor Villa-Lobos.

D. Ana Marie Cox.

I snagged all at random from Monday's paper. On the sports pages, frequent readers know that Brian Billick is the coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Dedicated followers of Buffalo theater all know that Barbara Link LaRou is one of the most respected of veteran Buffalo actresses. Heitor Villa-Lobos was the astonishingly prolific 20th century Brazilian composer whose two most famous series of compositions were called "Bachianas Brasileras" and "Choros." Ana Marie Cox is the racy Internet star better known as Wonkette.com who frequently covers politics in a lip-smacking salacious way mainstream media wouldn't dream of.

One newspaper, for sure. But those easily conversant with each name not only tend to be separate and distinct from each other but that's the way some advertisers like it.

Which is all well and good but it's not helping us talk to each other. If you want to know why people seem to be at each other's throats in a way that hasn't been seen in more than three decades, you have to factor in rampant advances in the worlds of marketing and demographics. Everywhere we turn, we encounter things meant for very specific audiences and readerships who don't necessarily know or talk to each other or want to (Would viewers of the Oxygen cable channel be likely to exchanging happy E-mails with Howard Stern listeners?)

The very idea of a truly mass medium seems redolent of a more innocent past.

Consider network television ratings and the indisputable fact that no. 1 -- literally -- isn't what it used to be.

America's top-rated show from October 1971 to April 1972 was "All in the Family" with a Nielsen rating of 34. For September 2002 to May 2003, the top rated show was "CSI" with a Nielsen rating of 16.3.

The rank is the same but that's a dropoff of more than 17 million viewers in three decades.

I was a daily TV columnist during the latter part of Archie Bunker's prime time reign. How well I remember decrying the triumph of Lowest Common Denominator TV.

And still do. But now that I'm older and wiser and prime time ratings have shrunk, I've come to the not-uncommon feeling that there was something quaint and even encouraging about network TV's search for any COMMON denominator at all, however low.

Almost everywhere you turn in modern media, it has become ordinary that people are speaking or writing to like-minded souls in the hope that, nearby, very specific consumer goods and services can be sold.

Believe me, there's something very cozy and reassuring about that. If a pop music critic can refer, in passing, to Frank Black and the Pixies without any elaboration, he and his friends can all keep ordering rounds and talking into the wee small hours. If a TV show can zoom in on teens with limited money but ravenous consumer appetites for novelty, it scarcely matters if the aggregate audience could probably fit into one Dallas tavern while the Cowboys and the Redskins are on Monday Night Football.

It's nothing if not comfortable for an art critic to be able to mention Charles Sheeler or Marcel Duchamp in passing to denote a whole aesthetic weather system without giving a full encyclopedia entry.

And, by the same token, it's comfortable for people on opposite political sides to hoot, vent, name-call, bash and just generally treat those on the other side as if they'd just left the room and were no longer within earshot.

But then Archie Bunker -- and more importantly creator Norman Lear -- knew better.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com