Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More, But the White Rabbit Does
This article originally appeared in Issue# 40-41
A Glimpse behind the looking glass world of TV's nonfiction programming
July 4, 1986 was more than just Independence Day, a time for picnics, fireworks, and waving Old Glory from the front porch. In celebration of the renovation of the Statue of Liberty, an entire weekend — Liberty Weekend — was set aside for TV merrymaking. The holiday actually swelled into a full week of publicity, anticipation and previews of events, most of them televised, with David Wolper, a producer of TV specials, overseeing the proceedings.
In the midst of the hoopla, this media event even generated its own reviews. "Is it News or Entertainment?" the headlines asked. The question was valid. The ABC extravaganza — an official ritual of the most powerful government in the world — was not unlike a Las Vegas floorshow. At home on a soundstage covered with brightly lit stars, Elizabeth Taylor introduced Frank Sinatra's rendition of his 1942 classic, The House I Live In. As the Hoboken-cum-Beverly Hills crooner paid tribute to the denizens of a small town America he had never inhabited, and which resembled daytime soap opera's Pine Valley more than any real American city, the camera picked up the beaming faces of "Nancy and Ron," old friends from the days when Hollywood and Washington were a continent apart.
Glitzy as all this seemed, it was not a departure from TV convention. In fact, since the inception of home TV in the post-World-War II 1950s, the medium has worked to blur and blend the distinction between news and entertainment, between fantasy and reality. Because we think of TV as a cultural form, it is fiction that is primarily analyzed as drama, while news — the province of sociologists — is discussed as information. Other non-fiction genres — the game shows, variety acts and talk shows that make up so much of the TV schedule — remain virtually unanalyzed, even though they also epitomize the masterful re-creation of reality that characterizes the TV world.
In spite of these separations, when we watch an hour of television, our experiences are remarkably similar. We see a series of images — a flow — all of which partake of similar settings, characters and messages, and are presented in the same slick style. News itself is ever more dramatic and emotional in form and style, while dramatic programming more and more resembles the commercials, and even the newsbreaks, which interrupt it constantly.
A Seamless Whole
"I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV," says a personable young man plugging aspirin. In a moment, the drama resumes — a miniseries, perhaps, in which a fictional character played by Robert Mitchum discusses international affairs with a "real" Winston Churchill, apparently changing the course of World War II. When a newsbreak appears, announcing the latest medical breakthrough or military catastrophe, it is difficult indeed to know how to respond.
It is here that the power of the media is most awesome. It creates an entire universe — a looking glass world — which is, for too many of us, more emotionally fulfilling and intellectually coherent than our actual personal and social experience. This world, like Alice's own looking glass land, is apparently identical to our own, yet subtly deceiving. What comes to us as we sit — often for up to seven hours a day — before the little lighted box, seeking escape or remedy for our troubles, trying to fathom the ways of the world and the human heart — is a picture of the world that we recognize as our own, yet experience as somehow more manageable and reassuring. Reality has been shaped into a drama of its own.
The least apparent, but perhaps most potent, aspect of this phenomenon is its cohesiveness. We can see the drama and "read" the message of, say, a 60 Minutes segment, easily. But to see that the very same worldview and ideology is played out on game shows, on People's Court, even on Real People, is less evident, but nonetheless true. When Vanna White flips her letters, the tension, the thrills, the disappointments acted out by players and shared by audiences, is as much a theatrical presentation of the American Dream as Liberty Weekend.
While watching we learn a new dogma — that in a world of poverty, scarcity and dreams that come true "once in a lifetime," material commodities are the most gratifying things life is likely to offer most of us, the most certain signs of success and luck. These lessons jibe with the teachings of the TV credo. Like its fictional counterparts, nonfiction TV uses show biz and dramatic convention to sell messages that echo those of the commercials and the news itself.
Like the dramas it mimics, TV nonfiction has a penchant for easy answers, simple narrative and pat solutions. Take the "TV justice" meted out in the People's Court, for example. In 15-minute stories filled with issues and passions, Judge Wapner metes out justice to folks just like us, with interpersonal problems the system rarely finds ways to handle, rarely even acknowledges.
In a world in which major institutions largely ignore the ordinary person, TV meets this need. But it ignores the limited application of its solutions, just as the news on the other channel highlights medical miracles only accessible to those lucky enough to afford them.
The New News
When local news became a profit center and market research analysts sat down to find out "what people wanted," they discovered something odd. Human interest — not information — was what they craved. The logical result, the fictionalization of news, can now be glimpsed on every local channel, as chatty anchors share gossip and trivia and stations slip slivers of information into the weather! sports/movie review pastiche.
In fact, news directors are remarkably successful in returning audiences to that warm small town — the one Sinatra sings about — with every newscast. Local news teams — young, bright, attractive and charming — are not really journalists at all. They are performers paid to impersonate the blends and neighbors we all wish we had but all too often lack in our increasingly segmented and impersonal worlds.
Although local news purports to be non-fiction, its reassuring but highly distorted tours of our cities' back alleys and public buildings are actually far from our real experiences of life. Set in the same world as the soap operas, these marketing wizard-created Emerald Cities with their 'have schmaltz, will travel" anchors seek to plumb the tragic need for a sense of moral and special cohesion that lies at the heart of modern American life.
On a larger scale, these unmet needs go far to explain our current president's success in creating an unwarranted sense of belonging and security for his nationwide audience. Reagan didn't invent this strategy, but he was hired as the current lead. He came along — a seasoned pro — when the nation had been long-schooled by the TV screen to accept his brand of leadership. The groundwork for this video statesmanship was actually aid in the Eisenhower administration, when government awoke to the possibilities of a medium that could present history-in-the-making that was as seductive as a beauty pageant, a ball game and a Shakespearean drama rolled into one.
That's what we've had ever since. And the socialization of the TV world we enter every day has thrown its glamorous spell like a net into the workaday world. Long ago, we stopped trying to make TV like reality, and started trying to make reality like television.
The best solution, perhaps, is to understand the unity that informs the television vision, wherever we flip the channel. We've all traveled a long way into the looking glass world. But to borrow a metaphor from another fairy tale (and a media movie and TV classic), the Wizard of Oz's hokum magic was exposed when Dorothy looked behind the screen to see him working the levers. We too need to look behind the screen at the ordinary people pulling the strings.