Oft-quoted professor a veritable ambassador of pop culture

Published: Friday, June 15 2007 12:04 a.m. MDT

Professor Robert Thompson in his office.

Kevin Rivoli, Associated Press

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Even if the world of pop culture news is slow, the media seek out Robert Thompson just the same.

The Syracuse University professor has been quoted on the image of motherhood on TV. On the phenomenon of animal shows on cable. The danger of Hollywood trilogies. Rosie O'Donnell's future. The hipness of being a nerd.

Such exposure is nothing unusual for Thompson, a font of pop culture knowledge like few others. There may well be an expert somewhere who has a more wide-ranging, obsessive knowledge of this highly amorphous subject. But if so, they're keeping quiet about it.

And it would be hard for the amiable, 47-year-old Thompson to keep quiet at this point, even if he wanted to. Because reporters from all over the world would keep calling — to get his witty analysis of Katie Couric's debut on CBS, of vintage furniture, of the growth of barbecue culture. He's been called, half-jokingly, the most quoted man in America. That's not exactly true; we do have a president. But on certain days, when the pop-culture firmament is busy, well, just Google his name.

"I've seen Bob get 60, 70, 80 media calls in one day," says the man who hired him at Syracuse, David Rubin, dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. "I've seen him in a hallway on his cell phone for hours. You could go so far as to say Bob is the most quoted academic in the United States."

So often has Thompson been quoted, over 17 years at Syracuse, that some news organizations (including The Associated Press) have lately tried consciously NOT to quote him.

But nobody said we couldn't write ABOUT him. So while Syracuse, the seat of Onondaga County, about 250 miles from New York City, would hardly seem a mecca of pop culture, it seems a worthwhile journey to meet one of the only men on the planet capable of riffing rhapsodically, on cue, about the history of the aluminum lawn chair.

 · · · · · 

The first thing you notice in Thompson's office are the TV sets. Not because three in one office is so unusual — though this office does seem rather spacious for an academic, not to mention the view — but because of what's playing. Not CNN or Fox News but an episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" on TV Land.

TV is Thompson's passion; his office shelves are lined with old VHS tapes filled with countless hours of shows. A short walk away is the lecture hall where he teaches his spring undergraduate class. On this, the last day of the semester, Thompson has three hours to wrap up the history of television.

He whips into action, starting with the early '50s and Lucy and Desi. Before you can say "Hill Street Blues" he's up to the '80s — the second "Golden Age" of television — by way of "Quincy" and "Barnaby Jones." At the turn of the century, Thompson argues, television is at its all-time best, with HBO the crown jewel. "The Larry Sanders Show." "Oz." "Sex and the City." "The Sopranos." "Rome." And so on.

He turns to reality TV, which, in a typically sweeping yet concise Thompson-ism, he calls "the most interesting new way to tell a story since the invention of the novel." It began in Britain, he explains, and then "the virus jumped over the Atlantic and spread."

"Survivor" is dissected. So is "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" and "Temptation Island." Have you ever noticed how conservative "The Bachelor" is, he muses, with all these girls waiting for a kiss?

Now he broaches the "single biggest event in all of TV history" — coverage of the 9/11 terror attacks. He plays a good hour of CNN from that awful morning, reminding the students, most of whom were about 14 then, how it felt to watch the twin towers collapse on live TV. When he later plays segments of an MTV documentary on pop culture post-9/11, no one flinches when one of its featured commentators turns out to be Thompson. The students are used to it.

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