Let's take the fame out of reality-TV infamy

By Tom Shales
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

This must never, ever, ever happen again. And by "this," we do not mean an alleged gate-crashing incident at the White House -- though that should never happen again, if it did happen, either. We're talking not about the act but about the reputed motive and reward for committing it -- which was, apparently, to get the perps' pusses on television, to make them stars.

If this was their wish, it's rather painfully obvious that they got it. Their pictures are paraded even when someone is denouncing them.

"These people should not be allowed on television!"

"Which people?"

"These people here, in these pictures we're putting on television!"

Now that TV cameras poke their noses into nearly every cranny and crevice of our great media environment -- and what with the Internet offering innumerable opportunities for people to be seen, studied, loathed and adored -- shouldn't the mystique of being on television have subsided?

You'd think so, but no. It's still a big deal whether we're talking about a giant national broadcast network or a smaller, niche cable outfit, and especially when we're talking about not a passing glance but appearances on a regular, perhaps weekly, schedule.

It seems as if people don't want to be just people any more. That's too humblingly anonymous. Now they want to be a show. They want to be a series. It's not enough to be John Doe; you've got to be the John Doe Show. For some, it appears that being on television imbues otherwise incidental lives with meaning; if you're watched while doing something -- whatever it is you might be doing -- the activity stays the same but you take on new dimensions. You're more here, there and everywhere.

It's a validation.

It's also, as Regis Philbin might say, out of control!

Now the question is whether the toothpaste can be put back in the tube, the genie shoved back in the bottle, or the genie's toothpaste -- well, whatever. Can it be done? After all, society can't allow people to misbehave left-and-right just to get themselves on TV. Do some people speed to get on a highway patrol show, or followed about by Channel Zero's Action-Copter? Do they rob convenience stores so they'll show up later in security-camera footage?

The sorry state of affairs may have become inevitable once reality TV went from trend to epidemic. The act of appearing on television morphed from privilege to right, or imagined right, with the prerequisites for admission lowered drastically. Now, no real talents or abilities are required, nor do you have to have attained fame in some other sphere; that would be so elitist!

TV is ready to welcome, embrace and coronate you and make you a household face, and all you may have to do is show up.

Amateurs have been part of the TV scene from its earliest days, true -- contestants on quiz shows and game shows ("People Are Funny" -- how was that for an understatement?), or in person-on-the-street interviews. Much later came the kinds of programs that turn seemingly ordinary, next-door people into stars, if only according to the Andy Warhol definition.

The Web and YouTube offer a certain kind of fame buzz, but it's amplified exponentially if one's YouTube appearance is picked up and aired on television.

"American Idol" at least demands of its aspiring stars an ability to sing or a willingness to make a spectacle of themselves if they hope to progress only as far as the wacky auditions. But the others, especially the relatively recent breed of pop sociological portraits -- The Real Housewives of Here or There, workplace vignettes, weight-loss pageants -- ask little more than a commitment of time.

Reality TV tells the audience it's the star, or can be, and invites viewers to step through the looking glass and up onto the national stage.

When Bing Crosby and later Tiny Tim sang "Welcome to My Dream," it was an invitation, not an order. But the new breed of star-struck reality contestants co-opts us into complicity: "Get into my dream; it's my turn."

The new make-me-famous mischief is not there to entertain us, make us laugh, make us gasp or anything else; it's there to sell people like products, to push them into our consciousness, to make them famous.

To those determined enough, even condemnation can enhance notoriety. It's sort of sick twist on the old "all publicity is good publicity" mantra. And in fact the word "notoriety," which used to mean "the condition of being well-known for some unsavory or undesirable reason" -- the same as "infamy" -- is now commonly and mistakenly used as a synonym for just plain fame.

In the Martin Scorsese 1983 film "The King of Comedy," two feckless dolts commandeered a late-night talk show, and a national network, by kidnapping the show's star, played in the film by Jerry Lewis. But commandeering media is really much easier now, as the new breed of star babies has demonstrated. All you need now is a venue, an opportunity and a lot of nerve.

So how to prevent this kind of thing from happening again and again in weeks and months and years ahead? Punish the perpetrators by denying them time on TV or space on the Internet? Right. Who'll be the first to try that one? They'll also be the last.

Punish them by putting their pictures on newscasts over and over again? Yeah, there's excruciating torture for you. Only we're the ones who suffer it.

One possible solution: Segregate the not-really-news items about human show ponies from the real news about real newsmakers. Lump all the phonies and fakes into one phonies-and-fakes segment. Let the talk-show comics have at them, but discourage them from showing offending footage over and over again just in case anyone has been lucky enough to forget it.

"And now in other news" could be replaced by "and now, in nether news." Nether News from Nether Land could be a show in itself. As long as no serious crimes are involved, relegate these stories to a trash-news segment populated by publicity hounds. Perhaps anchors could say, "Several more people tried to get themselves on television today by doing something stupid; here they are."

That might slow the race to get on television -- but it's unlikely anything really can. And these suggestions only apply to newscasts. The Anything Goes Cable network would still be free to turn these pretenders into celebrities by giving them a series or adding them to the cast of one. If there are dollars to be made, some network will try to make them.

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