Zachary Snider. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 1: Movies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
“How else to represent this new world than through post-modernist flatness? The post-modernist motto is: You can’t beat trash culture, so join it.” ~ Todd Gitlin
Career Formation in the Hyperreality Matrix
At the impressionable age of 20, I was hired by the Manhattan branch of what, for purposes of this chapter, I’ll call Stars Today, which, for decades, has been America’s beloved daily syndicated entertainment news show. For the past nine years I have served as an associate producer for Stars Today in New York City, Los Angeles, and London, where I worked the press lines for awards shows, film premieres, benefits, and other events and where I animatedly asked stock (but apparently necessary) questions to countless celebrities, including “Who are you wearing?!” and “What are you doing next!?”
With boom mics and NTSC tapes flying at my head, the rest of my workdays were spent at film press junkets in private luxury hotel rooms; jam-packed press conferences; in-studio confessional interviews; behind-the-scenes of various film shoots; exclusive album recordings; Broadway play rehearsals and backstages; personal viewings of celebrity homes; among innumerable other celeb-infested events. As a nonthreatening (and uncommonly innocent-looking, which always opens more doors in this industry) young blond male (still) under 30, I became a very trusted entertainment television Boy Wonder, at the demanding side of the executive and coordinating producers and high-profile PR agents with whom I had established professional relationships, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The purpose of this chapter is a proposal, or a pleading, perhaps, for viewers to heighten their sense of awareness, of perception and interpretation, of what news—both (supposed) hard and soft news—presents to them. With visual media serving as humanity’s best and allegedly most-trusted friend in the twenty-first century, particularly for the Millennial generation, many regular television viewers do not initially realize that nearly every news segment transmitted via satellite is editorialized for competitive and capitalistic gain and that actual “reality,” or “hyper-reality,” as Baudrillard refers to the mass media’s format of “projected reality,” can never be actual reality at all. Even as someone who has been a manipulator of media for his entire professional life thus far, I, too, like any other television viewer, inevitably fall prey to the hyperrealistic ideas unconsciously absorbed by my oft-media-dictated and -affected psyche.
Prior to being hired by Stars Today, I had conducted celebrity interviews and written feature stories for my university newspaper, as well as having spent a year on the editorial staff of a renowned Manhattan theater magazine, for whom I interviewed and wrote articles about “stars” of the stage, screen, and television. As a ravenous young adult, barely into college I knew I wanted to hang out with celebrities for a living because I had spent my childhood and adolescence seeing all of their films, buying their CDs and cassette tapes, and video-recording their TV shows. This American popular culture obsession is certainly not uncommon. I can only imagine how affected my celeb-infected mind would have fared as a teenager in the twenty-first century, since, from Facebook to Flavor of Love, the Millennial generation’s philosophical intuitions of every aspect of their lives seem to be shaped solely by celebrity culture.
In college, when my peers were happily doing keg stands and shot-gunning Keystone, I was in a tuxedo at the Tonys, a Ferragamo jacket at the MTV Video Awards, or illegally sipping Veuve Clicquot at a Julia Roberts tribute gala. My entire adult life thus far has consisted of conditioning my formerly sheltered suburban mind to understand the plights and puppeteered dichotomies of the “celebrity brain,” per se, as well as to explore precisely why audiences want what they want.
Later, while pursuing my Ph.D. in London, I developed career multiple personality disorder: Mornings I lectured to creative writing, media theory, and literature classes about Foucault’s, Baudrillard’s, Lyotard’s, and Derrida’s concepts on reality (or the lack thereof), and nightly I would interview current celebrities such as Sienna Miller, all the while pretending to care with whom Jude Law was committing infidelities. Thus, I can completely relate to Baudrillard’s characterization of himself: “What I am, I don’t know. I am the simulacrum of myself.”
I knew I needed to collapse and sprawl across Roland Barthes’s postmodernist couch and hear about the lack of reason in reality, after having to tell my classes, “Sorry, I’ve not finished marking your term papers about ‘Death of the Author’. Um. At the last minute I had to go interview Queen Latifah in Prague.”
The Television Producer and His Other
Now, I’ve got at least three different versions of a career other, one a postmodernist-psychoanalytic theory scholar, another a Hollywood television producer, the third a guilty, a naughty mix of the two. In regards to this formulation of an Other, Toffoletti states:
Baudrillard’s displacement of a psychoanalytic model of subject constitution proves immensely significant for forging alternative understandings of subjectivity in contemporary life. In a context where the real gives way to the hyperreal, Baudrillard seeks to put an end to dialectics, to a value system by which identity is forged through differentiation from the Other.
With this in mind, I myself, after having been submersed in the entertainment industry but having also been inducted into academia, am also an example of Baudrillard’s forged identity of his Other explanation. My version of reality became an entirely skewed version of actual reality, where celebrities seemed to be genuine peers and colleagues in my life, both for work and play. It is our show’s job to pretend for the rest of America that our visual, editorially edited images of celebrities are realistic representations of these televised public figures so that our viewers can forge personal, upfront “relationships” with the celebrities they follow faithfully. Hollywood, and the small celebrity-oriented world within Manhattan, is a sort of plastic Disneyland for those of us who work in television. For comparison’s sake of this ultimate hyperreality, which is not far-off from Hollywood: “It was the controversial French philosopher Jean Baudrillard who pointed out that the true role of Disneyland was not to provide a childlike escape from the reality of life, but to persuade us that the utter fantasy of modern American life is in fact real.”
As television producers, we are the pushers—the persuaders—of what Baudrillard refers to as this “utter fantasy of American life,” bringing viewers a sort of fantastical Hollywood-as-the-adult-Disneyland slide show of images. We create a fantasy world for our viewers but ironically, if not hypocritically, do our best to make you believe that your fantasy is reality.
What You Really Want To Know About …
Soon after the turn of the millennium, I worked on a piece for the Michael Jackson Radio City Music Hall tribute, where we produced footage of Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor emerging from a towncar in the middle of midtown with thousands of fans nearby cheering them on. When, in actual reality, a rather mortified midtown crowd had gone disturbingly quiet (which never happens), as though two extra-terrestrials had landed in the center of New York City. Our joyous, cheer-crazy footage hid the actual, realistic moment, which would have appeared like a misplaced scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
When a mega-pop star released a CD, while producing/fantasizing our warped television reality, we got soundbites from her about how she protected her virginity and stayed away from drinking or drug use. Later, in actual reality, I watched the pop princess, with hands rubbing all over a boyfriend’s clothed private parts, accept drugs and alcohol and partake in her party favors, with her dancers. Our moralistic, promotional segment was the antithesis of the orgy that went on downstairs at a now-defunct club.
During another segment, we aired soundbites of a teen heartthrob walking the red carpet into an awards ceremony, proclaiming he was looking for a special lady, while earlier that day I had watched his notoriously overprotective manager grab the star’s rear and kiss him backstage. This was followed by some other homoerotic canoodling backstage during rehearsals, but of course none of this footage was aired, which I’m sure was appreciated by the celebrity and his drooling female fan following.
For an entire week in London, we followed around another major star as she promoted her new book. Our footage showed her reading the entire story to a group of inner-city British schoolchildren, all of them captivated by her prose. When, in “actual reality,” more than half of the children had sprawled out on the carpet, napping, whispering loudly to each other, and bored to tears. Later, our crew captured her walking the red carpet into an awards show; we did not air the footage of her skipping the entire show, opting to instead slip out the backstage door into her towncar, after having thanked her fans and announcing how excited she was for the show.
But I am not writing a gossip column here.
Rather, this is our job. We get paid for this. It is our duty to ignore and erase “actual reality” for the expectation of our fans and the reputation of our celebrity clients. Stated again: We create your fantasy as your desired reality. Every day is comprised of a series of meticulous, manipulative steps to create what Baudrillard refers to as hyperreality, in order to seduce the American public to feature prominently into our Nielson ratings—especially during Sweeps Week, when the most ultradramatic, overhyped stories conveniently emerge, which is also the time of the year when celebrities are most promotional of themselves because they know their audiences want to know all their dirty little secrets. Entertainment television producers must have a hybrid, paradoxical version of reality and lead this hybrid life in order to play the middleman between celebrity life and our audience’s actual real lives.
Entertainment Vs. Information: American Culture Is Pop Culture
While, for example, I can understand why Daniel Radcliffe and his young Harry Potter costars will never feel like “regular” people due to never getting the chance to develop or even know their true selves; and, for example, I can empathize with Tom Cruise for crazily jumping on Oprah’s couch and subsequently being conveniently “let go” from his Paramount contract; and, for example, I can even relate to Bjork’s desire to wear an entire feathered swan to the 2001 Oscar ceremony …
I still question relentlessly why the American public wants what it wants in terms of celebrity culture. Similar to anything else that is captured on camera, entertainment news is (obviously) not real. As soon as a correspondent, celebrities, or any montage of footage is filmed with expensive camera equipment and distributed via mass satellite feed to the American public, a representation of “real” Hollywood is catered buffet-style for tabloid-obsessed America. Defensor analyzes Baudrillard’s oft-studied and taught “Procession of Simulacra” in regards to this idea:
All reality, he claims, can be concerted into signs which are empty. If you have worked in a public relations office, an advertisement company, or a political campaign stable, you can have some idea of what he is saying. The image is all. That’s how the sale is made. That’s how the votes come in. And the alienation of signs from reality becomes even greater as the draft text goes to the editors who do not worry about the reality, but are concerned about “what will the audience say?”
Regardless of your abhorrence or appreciation for popular culture, it is obvious by reading any online service’s “Most Viewed News Stories” (i.e., Yahoo! News, Google News, MSN) that celebrity-oriented headlines top America’s information priorities, even that over politics and election coverage, Iraq war updates, or health and safety issues.
Even today’s hard news programs and footage are criticized for placing importance on providing entertainment rather than information. Much of the in-depth hard news coverage is now filmed and produced like Jerry Bruckheimer Hollywood blockbusters, no matter if it’s about international wartime affairs or a local children’s spelling bee. This suggests that, today, perhaps all news is entertainment news. Lerner states of the millennial generation’s relationship with hard news: “21% of Americans younger than 30 consider comedy shows—comedy shows!—a primary source of political news.”
This borderline sensationalistic style of news reporting in the twenty-first century has now placed entertainment values over the provision of information; network competition has become so fierce that it seems every aspect of news reporting has become for capitalistic gain. For the American public, the desire for subjective entertainment has now superseded that of the desire for objective information. Lerner also comments about this parasitic relationship between visual consumer expectation and network financial gain:
We live in an age when cameras are ubiquitous and access to what had once been off-limits is virtually universal—operating rooms, police cars, the boudoirs of the rich and famous. Increasingly, events unfold in real time, and thanks to reality TV and the proliferation of media, the public sphere is larger than it ever has been before. At the same time, television docudramas and movies that are “based on a true story” encourage us to believe that we can view the world from on high, like omniscient narrators. But nothing’s really changed. The idea that we “know” the “real” people behind the celebrity remains an illusion no matter how often our overexposed movie stars visit Jay Leno’s couch or how many embarrassing admissions they make on “Larry King Live.”
Every local pre-primetime five o’clock news often covers and presents epiclike news stories with Oscar-worthy cinematography about anything and everything, borderlining sensationalism and yellow journalism—but this method of combo-entertainment-information presentation has become expected by American audiences. Thus, since most news in the twenty-first century is often overdramatized, it would make sense that Hollywood-oriented program content is the most popular. Lawson proposes that today’s news production style and content is executed more like fictional works than concise, nonbiased, ethical reporting:
The obvious temptation is to blame journalism, and it’s certainly true that these blockbuster news stories are partly shaped by the fact that today’s journalists (in print and television) have much more space and much less fear of legal censure than did their predecessors. But I think the news increasingly feels like a novel or screenplay because so many people now live like figures in fiction, defining themselves as “characters” within what artistic criticism calls a “structured narrative.”
There must be some truth to Lawson’s fiction styled interpretation of today’s news production; otherwise, television “stars” (who are actually supposed to be nonbiased or nonpartisan reporters) such as Katie Couric or Anderson Cooper wouldn’t have such a prolific fan base. Couric, formerly with well-adored Matt Lauer on The Today Show—another form of “entertainment news”—became America’s Sweetheart, whose life was trailed by her audience of faithful followers who wanted to know every soap operatic detail about her husband, children, network reputation, and so forth. Likewise, if Cooper didn’t have his gray-haired, Indiana Jones-like stud character personae, bravely trudging through jungles and Middle Eastern battle fields, his reputation of a journalistic yet heroic, modern-day Gulliver or Gilgamesh wouldn’t have been cemented by his adoring viewership.
Parasites and the Loss of Meaning
The majority of the audience for a television news program such as Stars Today immediately interprets information, camera footage, and headlines as authentic, forgetting that all meaning of celebrity culture has been manipulated by us as television producers, writers, and directors, thus putting our own often ethically questionable editorial spin on whatever allegedly newsworthy information we are reporting to you. As far as meaning is concerned for audience consumption, shows such as Stars Today disguise soap-operatic tabloid information, complete with characters who have newsy lingo and language, prompting viewers to consider that they need to know the celebrity-supported and endorsed facts we provide. The meaning of this editorialized information is plastically altered for its famished, avaricious audience of persons who long to be closer to real celebrities, the majority of whom are never presented in a real or unbiased manner. When any celebrity is filmed, photographed, or scribed about, it is impossible for these representations to be real, yet their faithful fan followings often fail to realize this. Toffolletti analyzes this concept as per Baudrillard’s take on television itself:
For Baudrillard all the media of information and communication neutralize meaning, and involve the audience in a flat, one-dimensional media experience, which he defines in terms of a passive absorption of images or resistance to meaning, rather than an active processing or production of meaning.
This suggests that, according to Baudrillard, the audience is to blame for their hungry consumption of these editorial images and their inability to decipher the real from the unreal, the meaningful and the meaningless, the true and the false.
In opposition, it is easy to simply blame “the media”—particularly entertainment news shows such as Stars Today and gossip magazines such as Us Weekly—for spoon-feeding the American public this coveted footage and the reporting of their beloved celebrities. And admittedly, we, as entertainment informants, are at fault, at least partially.
We’re to blame, perhaps even more so than our audiences’ willingness to believe our footage, all of which is, of course, advertised as honest reporting with journalistic integrity. Thus, if the relationship between entertainment television production and its audience is equally at fault for satisfying each other’s desires (the audience’s entertainment and informative wants; television’s monetary needs), wouldn’t celebrities, who are the coveted program content of these shows, be at fault, as well? Without newsworthy celebrities (i.e., popular or controversial or trendy), shows such as Stars Today would have no relationship with their audience to begin with. In regards to where blame should be placed, Defensor states, without withholding his opinion, “The tragedy is that these do not only happen in advertising or PR agencies, but also in the editorial and news offices of some print and electronic media who have lost their identities in this image and money jungle.”
This parasitic tri-prong relationship between American consumerist culture feeding off of whatever celebrities give them, in terms of products (both handheld and artistic), body image, moral and ethical ideal systems, and all areas of trends (domesticity, fashion, travel and leisure, etc.), has partially alluded my psychology, because, since I have been of American voting age, all of celebrity culture, for me, has been work.
Everyone Likes To Blame “The Media”
Of all the contentious social issue topics my writing seminar classes dissect, whenever we get to the week on Body Image, every last student explains that his/her own psychologically constructed body image is compounded from unrealistic media simulacra. When teaching theory and critical thinking to undergrads, popular culture examples always seem to be the most digestible. Whenever I ask my students how they choose whom to compare themselves in terms of media-dictated body image, the room falls silent. They palpably do not understand where their often unattainable self-perceptions and aspirations of media-dictated body image derive from. Coulter recalls Baudrillard’s object vs. subject separation of this rather quixotic self-perception:
For Baudrillard, consumer society is object-focused and, as such, always disappoints. The object, however, does play a dramatic role. It designates the real world and its absence. Objects are uncanny: “There is always something in the object which the subject cannot comprehend,” says Baudrillard. The more objects we accumulate, the more obstacles we place between ourselves and relating. The object is a source of extreme paradox for consumer culture. By focusing on the object, rather than the subject, Baudrillard posits the object as a fully fledged actor in consumer society.
For television, and perhaps all of visual media, the collection or accumulation of rapid-fire images is substituted for the accumulation of materialistic or physical objects. Visual, quite often editorially altered images, are far easier two-dimensional “objects” for viewers to consume than materialistic goods, so the media is able to force syndicated point-of-sale transactions via this parade of images at a much faster and more affective rate and at a larger volume.
While my students (and most Americans who have embraced or accepted any overruling facets of popular culture) all blame “the media,” as is now overly common to do in the academic classroom, no one wants to admit that his or her own perception of him/herself has consciously or unconsciously evolved from images of various celebrities and models, all of which are represented in the form of unattainable but popular entertainment conglomerate-decided effigies. The media always seems to be at fault, but many of my students do not entirely know who and why they are blaming. Seaton states of this innate insecurity and general unknowingness of today’s university crowd:
But there is also another, less obvious, source of attraction to the notion that “there is nothing outside the text.” Today Americans—and, perhaps, young people in particular—are concerned about identity and seem often to be searching for some sort of definite and secure identity … Advertising tells us that everything we eat or wear, any game we play and, naturally, anything we buy, is a sign that tells other people something about ourselves.
The media sells ideas and lifestyles more than it does physical products, most of which are executed by celebrity culture, both directly and indirectly. These images and lifestyles are implemented into mainstream popular culture directly by conglomerate-dictated trends, while viewers’ psyches are affected indirectly by the posh lifestyle trends they view, and often attempt to emulate, compliments of filmed celebrity culture. The media is both a delight and a demon to the Millennial generation, but they’re understandably and forgivably unaware of who precisely is delighting and demonizing them.
In response to my question about how they derive their own personal body image construction, my students unfalteringly ask, “What do you mean?” To which my immediate, easy answer is this:
One evening during the Mission: Impossible 3 premiere, I stood on the red carpet outside of the Odeon Cinema in the middle of London’s Leicester Square. My cameramen and sound guys towered over my 5’7, 140-pound frame as I faced off with Tom Cruise, who, like a plastic Ken doll alien, had just landed from outer space to answer questions about his wardrobe tonight and his stunts in the film. I erected my shoulders as high as they’d go, realizing that I was speaking to a world-famous human being who, most likely, no longer actually knows the difference between the real and the unreal. And then, mortifyingly, I found myself neurotically having the following internal monologue:
Tom Cruise is my height! He’s a shorty! Although he’s a bit bulkier and muscley, our body frames are essentially the same type. I bet we even have the same waist size! We’ve both got big glittery smiles, sparkly eyes and full heads of hair. Tom Cruise is an international sex symbol! Ergo—if Tom Cruise is wanted, desired and lusted after by the majority of the planet, then—WOW!—I MUST be okay, too!
At which point, while staring Tom Cruise in the face, I wanted to instead slap myself across the face, having realized that even though my entire professional life had consisted of serving the American public celebrity fantasy information—plasticized compilations of forged simulacra in the form of 20-second television promos—I too had fallen prey to my own company’s salesmanship of entertainment-driven self-degradation and questioning of self-worth. My microphone went limp at my side.
After confessing this neurotic self-comparison to my students, they understand my question, and their responses are typically delivered in comprehensibly narcissistic categories, narcissistic in the realm of mirrored self-acceptance. The thin, peroxided girls want to emulate Charlize Theron and Cameron Diaz; the black and Latina females find acceptance from footage of J-Lo and Rihanna; the naturally curvier young women say they appreciate publicly proud celebs such as Kate Winslet and Scarlett Johansson. Most of my male students compare themselves to David Beckham or other popular athletes; hip-hop stars, the skin color of whom seems blessedly irrelevant to these Millennial students nowadays; indie and/or Emo bands such as Panic at the Disco! or The Killers; or, for the beer-guzzling frat dudes, any of today’s Frat Pack film stars, including Vince Vaughn and Luke and Owen Wilson.
There is an image archetype for everyone as we near the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. For example, most recently, the fall television season of 2007 introduced a geek club of characters for nerd viewers to relate to and women to find cute, such as the protagonists of Reaper, The IT Crowd, and Chuck, among others. These trends are conglomerately decided for competitive purposes, not simply by chance, which is unfortunately what the majority of the boob tube-consuming public assumes.
Conforming To Your Own Personal Hollywood Archetype
Nowadays, this omnipresent, unidentifiable but blamed force called “the media” presents trends for its public to consume, thereby identifying and cementing its public’s self-worth. Ten, maybe even five years ago, celebrities such as potato-shaped Jack Black; schlubby, shaggy-headed Will Ferrell; or blatantly average Taylor Hicks would absolutely not be featured in prominent publications’ lists such as “America’s Best Bachelors” alongside chiseled Brad Pitt, Hollywood classical George Clooney, or athlete-stud Matthew McConaughey. Note: the aforedescribed qualities of these well-known celebrities are not my personal, editorial physical descriptions, per se, but rather, the socially connotated reputations of their appearances.
The public’s consumption of these images of overweight, out-of-shape celebrities who are now apparently considered “sexy” in the twenty-first century is perhaps acceptable nowadays because much of America is overweight and out-of-shape. The majority of this country does not synonymously resemble Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron, so the American public is much more comfortable being told that celebrities such as Jack Black and Mo’Nique are desirable. This means that if a man resembles Jack Black, then he is sexy and desirable enough to be a celebrity …! I am not attempting to define beauty here but, rather, suggesting that television viewers narcissistically (but understandably) want confirmation or self-acceptance that they too are desirable and celebrity-worthy, like these superstar Hollywood images they watch daily. The parasitic relationship of these images—what “the media” force-feeds us and what we will consciously or unconsciously accept—is now more about deflated self-worth than about the power or presence of being a celebrity. In regards to this force-feeding of ideas and images, Baudrillard cites four steps in the progression of an image into simulacra:
- The image reflects a basic reality.
- It masks and perverts a basic reality.
- It masks the absence of a basic reality.
- It bears no relation to any reality whatsoever.
Furthermore, Baudrillard notes the existence of simulation as something of a step toward simulacra. Simulation is an imitation of the real that often becomes confused for it. He also posits that we exist in a state of hyperreality, where little distinguishes the real and the imaginary. This is perhaps most readily apparent in television.
This concept is impossible, as simulation, or an imitation of the real, can never actually happen in “the media” because there is no reality. The fantasy life, personalities, and images constructed around celebrity culture in entertainment television is this very state of Baudrillard’s hyperreality. Thus, no accurate simulation, not even an imitation of the real, can be successfully molded by television.
In the twenty-first century, many (but not all) famous people who are considered “celebrities” are more Everymen or Everywomen—or Everylosers or Everynerds or Everygirl-next-doors—rather than the glittery, glamorous 1950s-esque celebrity personas. Much of the American public nowadays wants their celebrities to reflect an imitation of “reality” that is identifiable and relatable to them. In many cases, viewers prefer mirror image-type celebrity archetypes and images of themselves, so that, in our age of obsessive reality television fandom, the viewers themselves feel like celebrities, thanks to the casting of celebrity types.
The majority of the stories we ran were increasingly considered edgy for our mega media conglomerate parent company, predominantly because before the emergence of these “big and beautiful” women, many of them non-Caucasian ladies, the majority of its channels and subsidiaries featured absolutely no facet of nonwhite culture. It wasn’t until just a couple of years ago when our executive producers decided it may be beneficial to our viewership if we had “persons of color” as correspondents, in order to hook in new millennial audiences. In years previous, even when doing man-on-the-street interviews (i.e., when a segment producer socially/casually assaults passersby with a microphone and questions, as his camera crew films each assault), we were blatantly informed to not ask “ugly,” overweight, or “alternative-looking” people, and especially, persons of color.
The audience of Stars Today, along with most other mainstream American entertainment news programs, is not in New York or Los Angeles. We cater to the Neilson rating demographics of middle-aged, middle-class, Middle American-suburban, mostly female, mostly archetypal “housewife” viewers, the vast majority of whom are Caucasian. Seaton humorously paraphrases Sontag’s take on the dominance of “white culture”:
The late Susan Sontag was once willing, like many other advanced thinkers, to think of cancer as a text revealing that one was guilt-ridden, uptight, repressed—in a word, bourgeois. It was with this notion in mind that she once declared that “the white race is the cancer of human history.”
With specialty cable channels including BET, LOGO, Oxygen, and Spike now catering to very microscopic audiences, our twenty-first century production strategy has had to adopt a more multicultural marketing strategy and representation. Although this seems like a logical and welcome change in the television industry, many top executives believe that steering away from the aforementioned demographic is a ghettoization, or even a dumbing-down, of our program content.
In a sense, well-watched and -rated entertainment news television programs serve as the mediators between celebrities and their worshipping audiences. We’re the dysfunctional middle child of Hollywood, stuck in the center, trying to make everyone happy. And if we can profit from both celebrities and their audiences, all the better.
Death of the Televised Text/It’s All About You
Roland Barthes’s 1977 “The Death of the Author” critical commentary of the literary and publishing communities is, strangely, as applicable for Hollywood and the television community. Although the high-brow, elitist, and respected literary community is, by reputation, in opposition with the lowbrow, commercialist, and amoral television world, the audiences of these two sparring communities are often one-in-the-same and share a great deal of common characteristics. Because both the literary elite and Hollywood mass culture must cater to their audiences with very similar methods of pleasured satisfaction, Barthes’s proclamation that the audience has been given importance over the text itself seems wholly appropriate for entertainment news.
Now that technology and media rule popular culture over the printed word, even entertainment news programs such as Stars Today are considered texts, suggesting that the sole purpose of such programs is to please their viewers but to also not simultaneously anger their celebrity clients. It’s tough making everyone happy. In “The Death of the Author,” Barthes wrote:
Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is “explained”—victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of Critic … In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered.
When audiences watch and interpret entertainment news shows, everyone is a critic. The very program content of a 30-minute entertainment news episode is a collection of often overdramatically represented promotional segments in which very little happens. This segment collection of celebrity gossip and soft news/feature stories is produced strictly to entice viewers to stay on the same channel for 30 minutes preprimetime so that said entertainment news show may secure these viewers for ratings.
Entertainment news television does not capitalize on its viewership by providing its target viewer with a fantasy. Rather, we create fantasy—or hyperreality, as Baudrillard calls the “realistic” fantastical—presented to you, our faithful viewer, as the projected reality we’re convinced that you have special ordered. With market research, competitive Neilson ratings proof, and mega-media conglomerate-decided trends, we’re actually manipulating each of our television-viewing audience members as a marionette, simultaneously telling you what you want to watch yet hypocritically convincing you that we’re catering to your entertainment consumption needs and requests. Coinciding with Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” this similar “Death of the Viewer” concept for American television audiences prompts viewers to not only embrace the clichéd idea of “don’t believe everything you see on television” but, more so, to realize that, in the twenty-first century, it is viewers who should embrace the power of free and original thought rather than accepting everything that we television producers passive-aggressively force-feed them. Without much of American television viewership making and pioneering this realization, the validity and reliability of the influence of “The Media” will continue to morph into a distrusted, inauthentic, hyperreality rather than a necessary, trusted source of information and entertainment.