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« Aesthetic Impacts of Population Dynamics | Main | Food As Art; Art As Food »

January 25, 2003

Free Reads -- Reality TV

Friedrich --

A fascinating piece by Bill Carter in the New York Times today about how the success of reality TV is changing the economic basis of the TV business.

Sample passage:

Not only will reality shows continue to flood network's schedules next fall, but television executives are also predicting such developments as an end to the traditional television season. Instead of the time-honored formula of introducing shows en masse in September and ending them in May, broadcast networks want to stagger the shows' debuts and banish repeats from the schedule almost entirely.

There could also be fewer orders for dramas and comedies, with a resulting shrinking of jobs for Hollywood writers and actors. And, perhaps most significant, executives are preparing for a fundamental rewriting of the economic model underpinning network programming

Carter's piece is readable here.

I'm reminded of some art thoughts I've been chewing over for the last few years. They go roughly along these lines: OK, there have been many basic changes in technology and organization, as well as thought patterns, as digital technology takes over. Old structures are being turned into databases; everything's being turned into databases. What seems to follow is that structures collapse. They pancake. This has been much noted in business. But what might be the equivalent in the arts?

Well, during this period in book publishing, there have been a lot of memoirs, as well as ever more focus on books you can use. In movies, even as the Hollywood spectaculars have grown more Photoshopped and audience-survey-sensitive, the indie cinema's movies are often puzzlingly flat in affect; they have no lift, no traditional art exhilaration. Kids in their manners generally have become more impatient, and cut-to-it-now abrupt. A lot of the newer, younger gallery art is scrawly and autobiographical, as well as conceptual.

When I watch a reality-TV show like "The FBI Files," I'm registering something funny; it's like watching "Dragnet" -- except, of course, that it isn't fictional. But the tone is similar, and it engages the same part of me that used to be engaged by a fictional TV show like "Dragnet."

The web seems to promote a kind of cut-to-the-quick-of-it mindset even where pornography is concerned. Amateur porn, indie porn, and peeping porn seem to predominate over old-fashioned story-based porn. The discussions we've had on 2Blowhards about the pros and cons of digital-video imagery often seem to come back to the fact that digital-video imagery doesn't have the density of traditional movie imagery. It's flat -- it seems to have all the information and none of the poetry.

As digital technology (and the kinds of mind and behavior patterns that accompany it) invades more and more of our lives, it seems to chew up the fiction, the poetry, the analog elements and transform them into endlessly branching databases -- what's left is all wiring and connections, and nothing in the way of what used to be thought of as substance. Perhaps what this means is that part of what's getting squeezed out of the equation are traditional forms of creativity and imagination. For what it's worth, this is why I tend to argue(somewhat monomaniacally, granted) that one way the cultural sphere can make itself useful these days is by asserting and emphasizing the importance of traditional pleasures at the very least in our private lives, and in our artistic experiences.

So, after all this dubious fanfare-blowing, my theory about why reality TV has been such a phenom: because it uses the cut-to-the-chase material of contemporary life, yet puts these flattened-out scraps together in ways that serve traditional tastes for stories, characters and drama. It reflects current conditions, in other words, yet serves familiar entertainment pleasures and demands. Why make entertainment out of actors, scripts and made-up storylines, all of which can look puffed-up and silly in a culture whose basic texture is information? Why not use actual chunks of information as your building blocks instead? Business thinkers have for years been talking about how the new digital forces are undercutting long-established structures and squeezing out middlemen. Perhaps, in the arts, an equivalent long-established-structure (now being undermined) is what we used to think of as "fiction," and perhaps some of the "middlemen" now being squeezed out include actors, writers, etc. Never thought of them that way before -- as the intermediaries who deliver the product -- but it may make some kind of horrifying sense.

Not an endorsement of this trend, of course. And, like I say, very likely a half-baked theory. But maybe there's something to these scattered observations and reflections?



posted by Michael at January 25, 2003


VERY interesting post, Michael. Congrats. I wish I had something terribly profound to say about it, but as I noted in a comment on another posting, original thought seems to take a while to digest.

My only tiny, tentative thought is to ask why you call the thought that writers and actors are merely middlemen "horrifying"? Are you horrified at the thought that actors and writers have only been giving form to thoughts, feelings, etc. that everyone else experienced but hadn't quite gotten around to putting into an organized form? It seems hard for me to imagine that you're shocked to hear television writers described as "middlemen." While I would admit that some artists over the centuries have managed to tap thoughts or feelings that are rare or, perhaps, more deeply buried in mainstream human consciousness, this generally forces them to create art that is far too "difficult"--i.e., slow to digest--for success in pop/commercial cultural terms. I would guess that anyone inserting a thought into a T.V. show that hadn't already occurred to a minimum of 25% of the mass audience is asking for commercial failure.(Even that number is probably too low.) I guess what I'm saying is that pop or commericial entertainment was already visibly flattening the hierarchies long before digital media came along. Actually, last week I went to a taping of a "Friends" T.V. show--maybe I'll try to describe what was going on there to flesh out this topic a little more.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 25, 2003 1:56 PM

Very interesting. I agree, except for the "horrifying" part. I adore reality TV, precisely for its ability to squish drama together with facts and gore-goggling, and I think it is seriously under-rated (as all new and popular cultural forms inevitably are).

When cultural waters change direction, those who have spent lifetimes working out the intense and complex skills involved in sailing up one way are always worried that someone else is apparently floating much more easily in the opposite direction to better effect. (Erm, not sure how far that metaphor will hold, but hey, this is only a blog comment, which may even prove my point).

The good news is, there will always be a place for quality drama and acting. Shakespeare is still going pretty strong after all this time, basically because he knew a good story when he saw one. But not everyone in the street rushes outside if the travelling players come to town anymore, because, to be perfectly honest, they aren't that good. As fields of culture shrink and newer, easier ones come along, the standard of execution is always improving.

So the mediocre who require gargantuan efforts to survive in professional marketplaces die a death. Those above them find their careers tailing off a little, and diversification beckoning. And those at the top are dominating a much smaller field. But hopefully there is the same amount of actual money in it as before, even if it's a smaller proportion of the overall world budget.


(Wonders if any of that is actually right. Hits send)

Posted by: Alice Bachini on January 25, 2003 2:20 PM

"Horrifying" only because I feel for all those people's jobs. I like writers and actors. Ok, it's also because I worry about my own middleman, mass-media flunkey job (and attendant pension plan) sometimes. And, come to think of it, because I kinda like the culture of the middleman -- the manners, the small talk, all that fleshy, take-it-easy stuff strikes me as what lubricates the movement of the joints. Pull it all out and the bones start to make a grinding sound. An efficient, digital grinding sound, but even so.

And, come to think of it again, "horrifying" because I'm attached to the old art forms. I suspect this sounds very stuffy and earnest of me, but I wonder if we might not occasionally aim for a little balance in these matters. Progress is groovy and generally for the better. On the other hand, many people will inevitably experience it as unpleasantly disruptive, even wrenching. Why not acknowledge both sides -- gratitude and regret both -- before deciding what kind of facial expression we should put on to face the future with?

But I may be spinning entirely out of control on my morning caffeine. Still, the two of you have got me noticing yet more. It seems to me that a number of the things the Blowhards have noticed in recent postings might fall under the same category. FvB's pop-music posting about producers, for instance -- maybe what's happening is that the producer and the audience are getting closer, and that the "artist" is being squeezed out (or at least made more like a pure commodity).

Maybe part of what happens is that as the pop and commercial world becomes shinier, more dynamic, and more efficient, it offloads a lot of stuff -- waste product from its own point of view. But perhaps this junk is valuable to the rest of us: spare time, "art," personality, actual human meat and flesh and feeling.

So maybe what's happening is nothing but a reshifting of resources (if a major reshifting). I notice this at work. Slimmed-down staff, more direct control by the people on top, less fun (and involvement) for the people in the middle, more dynamic and aggressive generally -- more businesslike. All of which is largely attributable to the computers. So fuck the computers. On the other hand, I've got a computer at home too. I can do anything I want with it there -- publish, blog, make videos or music. (Assuming talent, of course.) So bless computers. My creative options have collapsed at work, but blossomed at home.

Hey, maybe I should take advantage of that. Too bad that as I get older it gets harder and harder for me to shift around my own resources. And isn't that part of why progress is experienced at least partly as wrenching by many people? Not only is it normal to feel attached to what you know and where you come from, it gets harder and harder as you age to adapt to new conditions.

FvB: Eager to hear your report (and reflections) about attending the "Friends" taping. Alice: thanks for stopping by. Eager to read more of your thoughts about these matters.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 25, 2003 2:23 PM

Oddly, sf (especially fantasy) seems to be bucking the trend you describe. Fantasy novels are getting longer, and tend to be published in series of many volumes.

The change from a short-fiction centered field with shortish novels to the current state has been much discussed. My favorite theory is that the normal state for a novel is *long*, but until
the seventies or so, sf got so little respect that no one was willing to expend the paper on publishing long novels. The most common reader-based explanation seems to be "If you like the world and characters, you want to spend a lot of time with them".

I don't know why sf would be so retro (assuming you're right about the trend), but I'll mention that Connie Willis (a popular author of mostly short, non-series novels, novellas, and short stories) said that part of the fun of sf is that you can write in the old forms--she's written more than one screwball comedy. And quite a few authors are doing sf comedies of manners.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on January 25, 2003 5:48 PM

Hey Nancy, that's fascinating, thanks, I had no idea. The sci-fi world is such a big one, and it seems to have a life and a logic completely its own. It's also a complete mystery to me.

I don't know how any of this fits together, but you're reminding of something a painter/painting-teacher told me a little while ago. I asked her how the fine arts classes at her college are doing, figuring that they're having a hard time competing with all the computer-arts classes. How can oil paintings compete with Flash, animation, HTML, Dreamweaver, whatever, especially given that the latter can actually help land you a job. She told me that to her surprise, enrollment in traditional arts classes has gone up. As far as she can tell, kids are spending so much time in the virtual world that it leaves them craving something more corporeal and sensual. Here's hoping that's true.

Thanks for the info and observations.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 25, 2003 6:37 PM

I once saw Kurt Vonnegut Jr. speak, and he pointed out that in these times most people have the ability to "consume" well over 10,000 stories by some point in adulthood, as opposed to the pre-media days when only someone very literate could make it to a mere 1,000 stories. He said this causes many things, including weltschmerz caused by a comparison between real life and fiction, re "why isn't my life like that?" It can be too easy to compare one's life to fiction and wonder why happy endings are elusive.

That aside, I think what's happened to cause reality shows to become so popular is about the time someone hits the 10,000 story mark, fiction becomes all too predictable, or it becomes too extreme and contrived. Most of the dramas on network television anymore contain more plot contrivances than an entire season of soaps did in the 70s. "Hill Street Blues" set a standard for dramatic TV by both abandoning contrived plot devices as a regular occurrence, but then embracing them once in a while in a way that was refreshing. However, even "Hill Street" slid into the old formula, and we've been stuck with it on TV for quite a while now. Occasionally, something breaks out like the "Simpsons" or "Seinfeld," but they are rare. (I don't have HBO, so I haven't seen the "Sopranos" or "Sex in the City." And extra $20 a month to see dramas with nekkid people in them strikes me as silly.)

I think people are flocking to reality shows because there is more drama in one real moment of happiness, anger, or sadness a "real" person experiences (even though a lot of the situations used to create those emotions are contrived) than there is in an entire season of any drama you can name.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 27, 2003 11:57 AM

"Reality is just a crutch for those who can't handle drugs", er, I mean, virtual com space.

What is reality, anyway? Insofar as your thoughts are real, why is a war in Afghanistan (that others fight) "more real" than playing Doom (which you do)?

Here in Slovakia, we don't get reality TV on cable, and it's not worth a dish. I find Hallmark movies, of family dramas, competently done, to be better than most blockbusters. But its a question of relevance.

SF (specultive fiction -- Sci Fi and/or Fantasy) is always escapist, and there's always a desire (need?) for some escapism.

But I'm writing about how one idea of Art is to connect the viewer/listeners with their own emotions. In a different, better, more clear, more meaningful way. And the artists, and art, have always been middlemen between the viewers and their emotions.

If the viewers are seeing more stories, and have seen plenty of "universal" dramas, it's not unreasonalbe to want more real experiences. But this seems likely to be more of fad, like bell botoms. Of course, bell bottoms have come back...

Posted by: OldTigger on January 27, 2003 1:05 PM

Nancy makes a good point about SF. But SF, although it must be mainstream (someone buys all those books) isn't considered mainstream.

Reality Shows really took off when producers were afraid of strikes. And they grew because they are dirt cheap to make. Once again, it's money, not ideas, as a driving force.

It bothers me that people seem to have a difficult time understanding that a work of fiction can have more truth than an edited version of reality that, and the bore factor, is my beef with "Reality" TV.

Posted by: j.c. on January 27, 2003 7:22 PM

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