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Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2000 / 13 Elul 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

The new stardom that doesn't require paying any dues -- THE SUMMER of "Survivor"--following, as it did, the summer of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"--actually, it turns out, means something.

And it has nothing to do with those people on that island, or with the collective knowledge of the people who sat across from Regis Philbin.

For most of man's history, the most important thing to understand about the dispersal of information was that it was linear--the written word passed facts from one person to the next, in a straight line.

Then came sounds and pictures and colors on a screen--first a movie screen, then television screens. This changed everything--flickering images altered the way in which humans saw each other.

Throughout, the core understanding behind these processes was that people of talent would work to create something--something written, something painted, something sculpted, something acted out--and it would be passed on to audiences. This was a given: The creators would create, the audiences would receive.

Now, though, this has begun to change. The audiences--at least representative members of the audiences--have been turned into the creators, or at least into the products of the creative process. The alleged stars of the reality shows--"Survivor," "Big Brother," to a lesser extent "Millionaire"--have become famous not for doing, but merely for being. "Be yourself" has become more than an eras-old admonition passed from parent to child--"be yourself" has turned into a goal. If you are yourself, and the camera is turned toward you for long enough, you can become as famous (briefly) as Marilyn Monroe or Babe Ruth. And you don't have to do a thing; you don't have to possess a shred of talent. You simply have to be present, in the right place at the right time.

It's a rather astonishing change in the way we regard public people. Public people were once defined as such based upon the fact that their remarkable skills had brought them to the attention of the public. Now, though, we appear to be entering an era in which the skills are unnecessary. One can become a public person just by being a person, in public.

Of course, those cameras have to be turned on for this to work. Although CBS' "Survivor" has been given much credit for bringing this about, it was in fact a television program produced on another network owned by CBS' parent company, Viacom--the network was MTV--that demonstrated how powerful this become-famous-based-on-nothing idea was. MTV's "The Real World"--a series of series, each of which followed purportedly regular young people around for a period of months--made huge, if fleeting, stars of the young people selected to live in the MTV houses.

Someone in the executive offices of the network figured out: Why pay high-priced, big-name actors and actresses to be on television? If we throw six or eight anonymous people in a house, videotape them doing whatever it is they do, and put the programs on the air, the public will begin to decide which of the six or eight they like most, which of the six or eight they like least. The public won't be able to help themselves. It will be like real life, only shorter.

And now this theory is multiplying. Television executives love it--what TV executive wouldn't love the idea of not having to pay the on-camera performers very much?--and so, evidently, do audiences. The edict to "be yourself" is flexible--what works best on these programs is not "being yourself," but being yourself as you might envision yourself on a screen. It is considerably easier to identify with these new, temporary stars than it is to identify with, say, Tom Cruise or Barbra Streisand. You can actually imagine being one of these new luminaries, for the simple reason that you could be one of them.

Will this last? Will it render the old way obsolete?

Not a chance. The linear may have evolved into the colorfully visual, and there may be this current jog in the road in which fame is democratized and routinized. But the world will never be able to abandon its devotion to the concept of a meritocracy. Soon enough, the audience will be escorted off the stage and back into the audience.

The alternative would be the only logical extension of all this: 275 million Americans, all of them walking around staring into mirrors, becoming the stars of their own neverending shows.

They'd cancel those shows within 13 weeks. Few of them would be able to stand the plots.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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