Once upon a time there was a young man who landed an audition for a television game show called “The All-New Dating Game.” The format of the show was simple: a beautiful young lady or attractive young man would sit on one side of a partition and lob questions dripping with sexual innuendo at three hot contestants of the opposite sex on the other side of the partition. They, in turn, would ad-lib predictably risqué (but funny) answers. The object was for Beauty to pick one contestant to take on an all-expense-paid super date funded by the show. It was all good, clean-ish fun.
How the young man…let’s call him Rupert – Rube for short…ended up in Los Angeles where the audition was being held is irrelevant. Suffice it to say that one fine day (most days were fine in L.A.) there he was, standing in line outside of a television studio with 100 other guys like him. An hour later, he was still there, still with 100 guys, except most of them were behind him instead of in front of him. Eventually he made it inside, where he waited another 30 minutes to be invited into the bowels of the building. There he found a table with five or six people seated behind it, a chair in front of it, and a doctor’s privacy partition to the side of it. A young lady behind the partition (she sounded young anyway, but in Hollywood you never know) asked five or six of the kind of questions Beauty was going to ask. He responded as wittily as he could…and got the gig.
Oh joy! Talk about validation!
A few days later he showed up in a nice suit and was led to a “green room,” where actors and performers wait until it’s time for them to go on stage or on set. In the green room he was given a sheet with the answers to the three questions he was going to be asked, and instructed to memorize them. Yes, you read that right – the answers were pre-scripted, as were the questions, as was probably the winner – and those answers by the way, written for the lowest common denominator watching the show, were mind-boggling in their stupidity. He should have refused to follow the script once he got onto the set, but he had been raised a team player and so went ahead and made a fool of himself on national television three times – one initial broadcast and two re-runs. One of the other guys got the date, which was just as well because, when Rube briefly greeted Beauty on his way out, she turned out to be not such a beauty (although she might have been a wonderful person). She had acne scars that weren’t noticeable to viewers since they were covered by make-up and transmitted through primitive technology to the ubiquitously small television screens of that day. His pay for sacrificing his dignity and self-respect? Hundreds of pounds of breakfast cereal, dog food, and laundry detergent which he didn’t even get to enjoy because he had signed all of it over to a local doctor’s office as payola for getting a sick excuse so he wouldn’t get penalized by the airline for changing his flight plans back to Baton Rouge.
Perhaps Rube should have known better. He had been modeling for a leading department store in Baton Rouge and appearing in regional television commercials for a couple of years already. He already knew much in the media was contrived, and was even complicit in some of the contrivance. He had seen clothes pins, sometimes five or six per outfit applied to the backs of models (thus invisible to the camera) to make inexpensive, ill-fitting garments look good. He had, many times, struck a frozen pose – mouth open in simulated speech, arm extended, pointing at something in the distance while wearing a tennis outfit and holding a racket, for example – while camera crews adjusted camera angles and lighting and snapped shots. He just didn’t know how deeply the contrivance ran until he appeared on “The All-New Dating Game.”
In this day of computer animation and self-absorption (motivation for the media to cater to the way their consumers want reality) contrivance in the media has only increased. Forget fantastic creatures and the destruction of New York. That’s obvious art. Let’s get down to alleged reality. Two words: “television camera crew.” There is nothing real about running around half naked trying to survive in a wilderness, as in “Survivor” for example, while being closely shadowed by a fully clothed, well-fed camera crew who are sleeping in tents, RVs, or pre-fab cabins. Think about it logically first. There has to be at least one camera for wide shots. Then you would need close-ups and different angles that you could cut to in “real time” (edited in hours or days later in “post.”) That’s one or two more cameras. Each camera requires a crew: the camera operator and one or two assistants to physically steer the operator around obstacles, or remove them from his path while he is trying to keep moving contestants suitably framed in an eyepiece or small screen. Newer cameras might have optics and audio advanced enough to dispense with a separate light source, lighting director, and audio operator with a boom or shotgun mike, but not in every case, and that would add more people. Finally, if you need to follow more than a few contestants simultaneously, you would need several teams of two or three cameras and crews each.
Now that you’ve looked at it logically, go digital. Google “What really happens behind the scenes of ‘Survivor?’”. It’s an eye-opener. There are as many as 75 crew members, some of them within arm’s reach of the contestants. Boom mikes hang over everybody’s head. Contestants wear what they are told to wear, or what is provided for them to wear. This is important for several reasons, one of which is that they have to match their body doubles. Body doubles are used for wide shots after the crowd, including the contestants, has left a location in transport vehicles. Contestants are given medical check-ups after every challenge and psychological evaluations by trained therapists as needed, but…they are not allowed to shave or brush their teeth because if they did, the premise of the show – “on their own in the wilderness” – would be compromised.
“Survivor” is no more real than the man in the moon. Neither are any other “reality” shows. As it is with reality shows, so it is with other media content to a lesser extent. The question is: “Why do the producers of these things go to such lengths to preserve a paper-thin veneer of pseudo-reality easily brushed aside with the click of a mouse?” Do they understand something about their fans that the fans don’t understand about themselves? Which leads to another, more important question: “If people realized the extent to which the media play them, would they care? Has illusion become more important to them than reality?”
Conduct your own experiment. Next time you watch your favorite situation comedy focus on the laugh track. It’s surreal. No crowd laughs as predictably, as consistently loudly, or as choppily as a laugh track would have you believe. Then ask yourself: “Who decides when a line is funny?” The answer is – guys and gals editing the show much later in post decide. That means since the laugh track cues you when to laugh, and laughing motivates you to believe that what you’re laughing at is funny (cognitive dissonance), Joe Blow and Susie Smith decide for you, to a large extent, what you think is funny. The shows that are “filmed in front of a live audience” may not have laugh tracks (though some might), but what they do have are cheerleaders in front of that live audience telling it when to laugh and when to stop laughing, sometimes with signs. Does this bother anybody?
Of course, contrivance has been around forever. Audrey Hepburn couldn’t carry a note in a paper bag when she filmed “My Fair Lady.” Her songs in the movie were dubbed by soprano Marni Nixon. The same was true for many Golden Age musicals. Old Hollywood was infamous for the double lives of its stars – sex symbols who were secretly homosexual in a culture that didn’t accept or understand homosexuality, icons of homespun humor who were alcoholics, paragons of fatherly or motherly wisdom who were very poor parents in real life, and so on. Contrivance has always been a necessary ingredient of this kind of entertainment. We don’t turn on the television or go to the cinema or theatre to watch somebody clean a kitchen. We do it to escape, to be inspired, to be moved in a way everyday life doesn’t usually move us. So why be concerned now? Two more words: “W” and “Trump.”
Back in the day, the media and their contrivances were contained – to cinemas, theatres, televisions, radios, magazines, etc. Consumers of entertainment would knowingly suspend disbelief for a finite amount of time, under special circumstances, and then would have to step back into reality. Nowadays the media engulf us. We are never unplugged. There is precious little reality left which they do not impact, so their contrivance infuses our lives…and many people don’t know, don’t care, or both. It has gotten so bad that our leaders have moved, in the span of 12 years, from W’s “truthiness” to Trump’s out-right lying in the face of contradictory physical evidence…and half the nation appears to be buying into it. Occasional, limited, contained contrivance has mutated into a cultural zeitgeist of Orwellian designer reality. There’s a problem with that. When we support such a reality we place ourselves at the mercy of the designers and their personal agendas, which are likely to be, shall we say, unenlightened.
What do we do about it? Well, Progressives around the world have already started working on this and Trump’s election has energized their efforts “yuug-ly.” First, people should become more aware. They should look at everything the media feed them with a logical, critical eye, until they can discern what’s B.S. and what isn’t. Once they recognize B.S. they can then make a conscious decision to suspend disbelief or not. Second, when appropriate, people should insist on reality (the original concept). (Supporting a for-real, grass-roots, progressive radio station like WHYR is one way to do that. Just saying.) Third, from time to time, everyone needs to unplug from the cultural mother board and reboot their humanity and individuality.
It essentially comes down to saving the world.
Here’s something to practice on: “television camera crew” is only two words. Why make such a big deal about it? They are just words. There are more important things to think about. Just drink the nice Kool-Aid and move on. Trust us…