Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2000 / 13 Elul 5760
The new stardom that
doesn't require paying
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
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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