A Permanent Reality Show

There is a growing trend to make news of the entertainment business into a form of entertainment itself, as if it were its own endless and fascinating reality show.  What does this tell us?

If one blockbuster movie noses out another in ticket sales over a weekend, for example, that’s now more likely to be reported in the entertainment section of the daily paper than on the business pages, even though it is far more likely to affect the profits of the film’s producers and distributors more than the life of any viewer.  If a new album by a pop star has disappointing sales, that, too, becomes entertainment news though it will affect the record company and its investors more than the consumer.  It’s all about the success of the product, not the quality or interest of the entertainment.

We follow the careers of actors and sports figures, the amount if money they make, their affairs, their new contracts, and so on.  This is part of our celebrity culture, the way we live vicariously through others.  But this focus on business itself is different.  It’s not about any one person or figure.  It’s pure cash and statistics.

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, James Kirns noted: “We have become a society that is fixated on process and absorbed by the slippery, complex machinations of the middlemen, brokers and executives who conspire offstage to determine what takes place onstage.”  He wondered, “What purpose is served by this spreading fascination — this compulsive preoccupation, really — with transactions instead of actions and with negotiating maneuvers instead of outcomes?”

He proposes the term “procedural voyeurism” to describe the phenomenon.  That’s awkward, but the “voyeurism” is dead on.  The public is looking in on events in which they have no say, no standing, no impact.  The gratification is entirely at a distance.  But what purpose does it serve, as Kirns asks?  Why have these dramas come to occupy center stage?  (See, “The Art of the Deal as Entertainment.”)

For one thing, the more conventional forms of entertainment are losing their power.  Swamped by digital media, the public is no longer absorbed by the increasingly standardized products of the entertainment industry.  The ritualized summer blockbusters and assembly-line hits, tailor-made to fit the market, no longer really surprise.

By focusing backstage, behind the scenery, where real power is being exerted, on the other hand, the media satisfies our thirst for authentic dramas of success – and failure.  The public is mesmerized is the spectacle of the money and influence they don’t have.

That’s the second part:  as real income declines for most, and our social safety nets are being dismantled, the public gets to experience opportunity and risk in these negotiations and deals.  If they can no longer hope much for themselves they can, at least, be captivated and enthralled by how it plays out for others.

Interesting to think that he dealmakers, agents, producers and moguls who compete for better contracts and greater profits unconsciously keep alive the promise of America.