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Reality Politics and Politicotainment

The second session for the day involves my colleague John Hartley - and while it may seem somewhat strange to spend time in Dresden listening to a paper by someone who works in the building next to mine in Brisbane, we just don't get enough opportunities to hear one another's papers at home, so here I am. The session emerges from the increasing combination of reality TV and politics - from politically inflected television shows to news/entertainment hybrids like The Daily Show. Similarly, of course, politicians have become celebrities, and vice versa. The session also links to a new book on Peter Lang, Politicotainment.

John is the first presenter. His focus is on the plebiscitary industries - the intermediate agencies which have sprung up around the practice of voting for pleasure, within popular entertainment programmes such as Big Brother. The vote is at the root of democratic engagement, of course, and there is now a new paradigm of direct participation which has emerged in the new entertainment formats. But the plebiscitary industries are not the same as pollsters - they value consumers for what they do rather than how they behave. It is now possible for consumer and audience preferences to be represented far more directly, and this can lead to a kind of conversational democracy (Stephen Coleman).

The plebiscitary format is sometimes, but rarely, about politics; rather, it is about widespread participation, and can be seen as a kind of R&D for the plebiscitary industries themselves. In this, the medium is still the message, and audience members are directly involved in communicative processes, pace Jürgen Habermas. John now moves through a couple of examples, including a massively popular talent show programme in Hunan Province, China, which was watched by some 400 million viewers, and Celebrity Big Brother 2005 in the UK. The Chinese show was a runaway success, to the pint where there was significant criticism and some interesting side effects (unlike the Chinese leader, for example, the winner of the show could be seen as democratically elected, and there were suggestions that it would engender more dreams of democracy in the Chinese populace - one commentator called the show 'cultural democracy').

The Blurring Boundaries of Journalism

Göran Bolin is the next speaker; he disputes the common view of the triumph of entertainment and commercialism over politics, and instead argues that it is not entertainment that has taken over journalism, but journalism has taken over entertainment. Journalism has grown into several kinds of journalism, not for economic reasons but because of other factors. Definitions of what is good journalism have shifted. A field of a high degree of autonomy means that there is no need to rely on external factors as to what is proper conduct, and journalism has a good degree of autonomy. Commercial television is dependent on economics, and public television dependent on politics, but at least in Sweden the development of journalism shows a disconnection of political and journalistic interests over the last 20 years. The development of new journalistic techniques (such as the interview) and shifts in recruiting policies for journalists also create changes in journalistic practice and in the relationship between journalists and politicians.

If journalists dominate television practice, then, they also come to dominate entertainment formats. This shows that the relation between entertainment and factual programming cannot solely be described by economics. Instead, the growing autonomy of the journalistic field means that journalism has subsumed entertainment.

Cybernetic Participation in Politicotainment

Mark Andrejevic is the next speaker, and he sets out by critiquing the equation between the democratisation of entertainment and reality TV. In the latest American Idol, more votes had been cast than any American president had ever received - but this compares the cumulative total number of votes cast, and voters in American Idol could vote multiple times. Nevertheless, the story was widely covered in U.S. and international media. Such stories were framed with descriptions of reality TV voting as providing a place for disenfranchised U.S. voters, and as a case where voting actually can be seen to count.

Reality TV is framed widely as an exercise in participatory democracy, as 'the people's genre', and an increasing amount of research is being conducted on this phenomenon. (However, this may be an all-too-literal interpretation of reality TV.) Some shows which were directly aimed at discovering new political candidates also emerged - but the winners of such shows still did very poorly in the actual popular elections.

Mark now distinguishes between two forms of participation. Of these, cybernetic participation involves audiences as talent scouts, and allows viewer voyeurs to market show content to themselves. Cybernetic participation does not properly share power between programmers and audiences, and simply sets up a feedback loop between programmes and audiences; audiences remain simply targets for programming, while interactive participation would aim for a truer collaboration between both sides.

Revealing Real Politics

Jeffrey Jones now focusses on the increasing use of late-night television (such as The Daily Show) as a source of news for young people. This may undermine the distinctions between news and entertainment media, and leads us to question what is real and what is fake. 'Real polticis' is dripping with fakeness and staged events today, of course, while 'fake' entertainment increasingly unveils some of the reality behind such political spectacle.

Jeffrey now compares coverage of political events between CNN and The Daily Show - the latter steps away from journalistic norms of objectivity by commenting on events, but in doing so also points out some of the rhetorical patterns in political statements, thereby presenting what may be more insightful coverage of events, while the former remains complicit with political actors by following their stage-managed events and uncritically presenting the intended message.

In essence, then , the Daily Show audience actually sees more of the political events, and understands more of the political stage-managing, than the CNN audience, and assists more effectively in the meaning-making than does CNN. The public is already well-aware of the performative nature of politics, while mainstream news media continue to believe their claims to truth and their authenticity because of the authority of those who make these claims for truth. But truth is a type of discourse which societies accept and make function as true, and the institutional practice of journalism may be increasingly out of touch with media-savvy audiences' perceptions of truth.

West Wing Political Activism

Sue Collins now asks how politically radical celebrities can get without losing their celebrity appeal. Her focus is a case study of Martin Sheen, who was recently a very loud voice in the protests against the war in Iraq even while portraying a U.S. president in The West Wing. This generated a great deal of hate mail and (unsuccessful) calls to dump The West Wing from NBC's line-up. Two factors may be at play here. One is that celebrities need to acquire a certain political standing - and Sheen has a long history as a political activist, but just as important is his on-screen character , too, which is in line with his off-screen activist persona.

Sheen's construction is in two sides, then - on-screen portrayal and off-screen persona (as displayed especially in celebrity journalism); this creates a sense of coherence between on- and off-screen and provides much of the appeal for celebrity journalism which enables audiences to draw the connections between both sides. However, activism is not normally featured much in celebrity journalism, and to maintain celebrity value, or celebrity capital, therefore requires special strategies. This therefore introduces something paradoxical into celebrity activism.

When celebrities move into a political sphere, then, they mobilise this celebrity capital, and also require a certain standing and authority for the topics they espouse - but the very threat of risking their standing by becoming involved as activists also gives added impetus to their activist engagement. In Sheen's case, there is a kind of Möbius Strip of meaning linking the boundaries of private and public in the oval office as well as connecting the private and public life of the actors involved, and especially Sheen. Finally, too, the increasing fragmentation of audiences and the rise of narrowcasting may mean that there is an increasing and well-recognised niche for the kind of politics that Sheen and others like him stand for.

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