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From an American Family to the Jennicam: Realism and the Promise of TV

The mass dissemination of video cameras, webcams and the like have put the power of television into the hands of almost any citizen, and the power of such access can be felt merely by invoking the fame of such diverse names as Rodney King or Jennifer Ringley of the Jennicam.
David Banash

Issue #57, October 2001

For artists, critics and audiences on the left, the power and promise of realism have always been pivotal. After all, political critique and practical resistance must always depend on some level of engagement with the real. However, faith in our ability to actually find or represent the real has become ever more compromised and problematic after the critical work of poststructuralism. Nonetheless, even as formidable a Marxist as Fredric Jameson still argues that our most important critical task is to construct maps of our complex and abstract social relations. Just as theoretical debates have focused on more difficult and abstract versions of realism, popular culture has also been working through the problems of the real, and here too the concept has undergone much scrutiny. While different mediums and genres have wrestled with this problem in different ways, perhaps most notably in the rise of what is now called creative non-fiction, the past few years have seen television itself become the favored locus for any discussion of realism and the real. This is certainly more a change in degree than in kind, for a film like Network seemed to predict the coming of the Fox network with its tabloid-documentary style programming. But Fox style tabloid is not the only change we have seen. Everything from C-span to CourtTV has fundamentally changed the way we think of citizenship and the very idea of realism. Further, the culture industry no longer has a lock on the market; the mass dissemination of video cameras, webcams and the like have put the power of television into the hands of almost any citizen, and the power of such access can be felt merely by invoking the fame of such diverse names as Rodney King or Jennifer Ringley of the Jennicam. In what follows, I will attempt to identify some problems and possibilities associated with realism in the recent explosion of network reality TV and the mass availability of webcam technology.

So-called reality television is nothing new. Perhaps the first truly epic project for such television was PBS's 1973 : An American Family. This PBS documentary focused on the everyday lives of a middle class American family for a year. Commenting on PBS's project a year later in Television, Raymond Williams points out that television "can enter areas of immediate and contemporary public, and in some cases, private action more fully and more powerfully than any other technology". As Baudrillard would later rephrase it in Simulacra and Simulation, with An American Family "you no longer watch TV, it is TV that watches you". In a sense, a documentary project like An American Family must carry with it the conviction that it is possible to represent the real. However, as Baudrillard points out, it is no longer a question of documenting a reality but of staging a performance for the camera. As he makes this point, "there is no longer any imperative of submission to the model, or to the gaze 'YOU are the model!' 'YOU are the Majority'". In this formulation, the confluence of technology makes it possible to not only escape submission to the concept of reality, but to escape from ideology altogether. Baudrillard's case is certainly overstated. Few would really question the fact that in a multitude of ways television and other media are always functioning ideologically. Nonetheless, both Williams and Baudrillard point out the ways in which television technology can work to erode the boundaries that we more often than not take for granted, suggesting that those under the gaze of the TV eye might be able to turn the spectacle on its head.

tv picture! Over the past five years television has been abandoning fiction in favor of the documentary. With over 500 cable channels, programmers are hard pressed to fill all the possible time. Worse yet, producing the kind of sit-coms, variety shows, dramas and soap-operas that are at the heart of old network TV is simply prohibitively expensive. Perhaps the most fascinating example of this trend is the Learning Channel, where the producers claim to present "life unscripted" through a series of shows that include Trauma: Life in the ER, as well as the story series: Dating Story; Marriage Story; Baby Story -the installments of each documenting events in the lives of ordinary people. The promise of the entire network seems to be to film life as it happens from cradle to grave. But, as I shall argue, such claims should be received with a fair amount of caution. As they become ubiquitous these documentaries are also becoming more and more fictionalized. Perhaps the best example of this move was CBS's failed first season of Big Brother. Based on European predecessors, the American version of this program promised to merge the documentary realism of An American Family with the game show appeal of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Set within the confines of a small house, Big Brother pitted ten houseguests against one another under total surveillance that included twenty-four hour web-cam feeds. While the program sold itself as a glimpse of everyday life, the house is particularly odd in that it lacks almost every kind of device its core audience takes for granted: no phones, televisions, computers, or radios. In essence, what most Americans spend most of their time doing (consuming media) is almost the only thing that Big Brother really forbids. Thus, the authentic moments of emotion which the show sells as its real attraction are, in fact, generated through the most heavy-handed and apparent simulations. The same could be said for similar programs such as Survivor, The Mole, and Temptation Island. The very heavy-handedness of the narratives, their utter dissociation from everyday life, moves them further and further away from the kind of realism with which the documentary has traditionally been associated, and yet the promise is still always the real itself. Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor, argues that it is the focus on purportedly unscripted human interaction that is at the heart of reality television, making it successful: "the behavior we saw was genuine ... they [the participants] either forgot the cameras were rolling or they didn't care". In essence, the simulation itself produces the real, and despite the fact that viewers know this they are nonetheless compelled.

It was precisely the expense of producing traditional programming that led MTV to develop The Real World. How, asked MTV executives, can we produce a soap-opera without paying all the cast and crew necessarily involved in such a project? The answer was to simply find a group of people who would allow MTV to film their lives. As a pilot, MTV rented a Manhattan loft, found a handful of young people, and filmed their every move for an entire weekend. Though MTV didn't initially think of this in aesthetic terms ( though it should be noted that they never lose a chance to let us know now), they were following in the wake of Godard and cinema verite as well as PBS's seminal documentary. What has been most fascinating to watch over the years, however, is the transformation of TRW from documentary to franchised narrative. In essence, TRW actually began as something of a documentary about the ways in which young people lived, the similarities to serious documentary quite pronounced. As the seasons progressed, though, they move closer and closer to the kinds of fictional frames its audience is most comfortable with. After all, in the initial seasons each member of the cast had their own lives with all the attendant complications, often focusing on a job or budding career. The interest of the show was simply that these people lived together, and their disparate lives created conflict. By the time of the Miami season the producers decided that this was not creating enough of the kinds of conflicts that make for ratings, that is to say the kinds of conflicts that films, television and other narrative media have taught viewers to consume. They began to give the housemates jobs in common. These jobs became more and more fantastic, eventually including producing a radio program, working as entertainment promoters, and finally, in the most metafictional of any MTV production, creating their own public access television program. As the unreality of the jobs grew, so did the living space. Corporate sponsorships were acquired, and thus Ikea and other hip companies outfitted outrageously expensive digs, each season trying to outdo the next in luxury and extravagance. After the first two seasons, it became clear to even the most casual viewers that the title of the program was painfully ironic. By the time of the TRW Seattle (season seven), cultural critics Anthony Enns and Chris Smit were complaining that TRW cast members were "merely commodified identities which resemble the commercial products advertised by the show". However, such an attitude may miss some of the ways in which the cast members of TRW and other reality TV programs have attempted to either rupture the overdetermined narratives that conscript them, or at least call the viewer's attention to them.

tv picture! Careful viewers of TRWHawaii (season eight) will remember that Justin frequently changed his hair color. On several occasions, that little difference called attention to the ways in which the editors of the show ignored the actual chronology of events, as rapid cuts in supposedly continuous scenes showed Justin with various shades of hair. Might we not speculate that Justin's simple act made certain choices all but impossible for the editors? It may be that Justin simply liked to change his hair color, but it is also equally plausible that he was engaged in active resistance, self-consciously working to rupture the seamless narrative the editors always try to present. Those critics who worry too much about the gullibility of viewers would do well to consult the reaction to Justin's mysterious hair color changes among those who post episode summaries and maintain message boards. They constantly pointed out the discrepancies , and this lead to larger conversations about the nature and limits of reality on the show. However, not all the cast members have been as subtle as Justin. Perhaps the most critical cast member was Joe Patane of TRWMiami (season five). Joe went so far as authoring the tell-all Livin' in Joe's World: Unauthorized, Uncut, and Unreal. In this book, Joe spends a great deal of time explaining the way realism works in the production of TRW. Among other things, Joe takes on the editing: "Believe me, my wardrobe isn't large enough to change shirts four times in one night. Something fishy was obviously up in the fishbowl for you all to recognize on screen, if you cared to. Sorry, but it's true". Both cast members and viewers of reality television recognize the ways in which it must always be fictionalized, but surely this is no reason to simply dismiss the genre as a whole. After all, what other medium or discourse can claim that its versions of the real are without problems? The very concept of realism always carries with it a utopian desire in any context, even one as compromised and reactionary as television. Though most of the acts of resistance to the fictions of reality television are small examples such as those I detail above, with the growth of the genre certainly the possibilities for such transgressions will grow. Though such acts may not be simply unmediated eruptions of the real, they nonetheless provoke serious discussion in the culture about the limits and possibilities of realism.

Even if programs such as TRW, Big Brother, Survivor, and many others do spectacularize everyday life, there is also the fact that at some level they have fundamentally changed the rules of television content. Not only do far more people have the possibility of participating in and sometimes shaping the discourse surrounding our television obsessions, there is something amazingly refreshing and exciting in escaping from the generic confines of sit-coms and other worn out television formats. Here, different aspects of life are accorded value, sometimes arguably for the first time by a culture industry usually blind to anything other than stereotyped narratives, beauty and fame. On Big Brother viewers can actually watch the contestants washing dishes, playing games, and doing many of the other activities that are such a part of their own lives. Even as unreal and unlikely as Survivor often is, it does show the struggles similar to the group politics every corporate stringer, and even some families, might well recognize and identify with. And, of course, there is always at least the hope that chance might be involved. Even if much of what these shows present is coordinated in advance by the narrative expectations of producers, at least the cast members are not literally scripted; their exchanges among one another and the outcomes of their challenges are never entirely in the hands of producers. Perhaps one of the best examples of this was in the first season of Big Brother. Fans began to rent planes and fly banners over the house, directly impacting the show. It was something the producers could neither control nor completely ignore.

The concept of realism has more often than not been associated with liberal agendas. Many of the most pivotal works of the nineteenth century realist and naturalist novelists were in the service of, or at the least sympathy with, progressive socialist perspectives. This has been even more true in the history of film and television, where the idea of the documentary and its attendant obsessions with realism, everyday life, and the larger social totality have more often than not been abandoned to the avant-garde and the left by a cultural industry enamored with the extravagances of the big-budget, big return films or the studied and well trodden ground of genre television. Thus, left to the leftists, documentary realism and everyday life seemed a critical haven of good politics, though one that required a film festival or a university course to find an audience. It seems clear that part of the move towards reality TV is also a move on the part of the culture industry to spectacularize the everyday while extracting the maximum from the cost-benefit relation of such affordable and exploitative productions. Still, to the extent that it troubles ideas of the real, must not the cultural industry also be troubling its own ideological mechanisms of control? Surely there is room to hope that some new versions of realism might actually emerge in the few moments of chance that remain in these productions. But such hopes need not rest solely with the producers and the networks.

In his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin saw the possibilities for a leap in our notions of realism through the technology of film:

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on the hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.

Surely Benjamin's analysis is as radical and applicable today, for it seems to describe almost perfectly the possibilities for a new realism in television for an age when anyone with the means to buy a computer can become a broadcaster. If for Benjamin film's tenth of a second was dynamite, perhaps the refresh rate of webcams has the power of an a-bomb to change our consciousness of everyday life. The rise of webcams operated by individuals, trained on office cubicles, streets, bedrooms, dorms, the interiors of refrigerators, and other spaces both public and private are already doing more to deliver on the promise of reality television than anything the networks are ever likely to undertake. The aspirations of conceptual artists and film makers are finally being realized on the web. There are cams trained on people sitting in cubicles for hours a day, doing laundry, sleeping, having sex. However, unlike the films of Warhol and others, these cams actually have audiences. Television on the web, currently a commercial failure, is proving a success for ordinary people with few financial resources. Once anonymous people, and sometimes even their pets, have audiences of thousands checking in on them everyday. Jennifer Ringley, the operator of one of the first and still most popular sites, the Jennicam, sounds almost as optimistic as Benjamin as she points out that "For some reason, we think it's OK to watch PBS shows about bison and whales, but not about ourselves ... . I think that's terrible, because we learn a lot by watching ourselves". If there is anything close to the promise of a utopian realism, it is to be found in this and similar sentiments shared by the thousands of cam operators and celebrities on the world wide web. In a recent Art Journal article, Brooke Knight points out that these operators control every aspect of their television selves, escaping the mediation of editors or other institutional interests: "This control goes beyond simply where to point the cam: unlike many other art forms, the artist has access to both the means of production and, through the Internet, the means of distribution". It would be hard to imagine a more radically democratic medium in terms of distribution, access, and content, for the cams tend always to celebrate the world of everyday life. Microserfs cam their cubicles, sometimes in the interest of self-promotion, but perhaps also to reveal the proletarianization of their post-fordist lives. Families broadcast the intimate details of their children's lives to thousands of committed fans. While there is always at least a hint of illicit voyeurism associated with this, is it not also an invitation to reevaluate these usually hidden and anonymous lives? Housewives document the work of raising children and running a household. Even some refrigerator cams create links and offer supporting content about the economics of food in our global economy. In Benjamin's terms, webcams offer a new consciousness of our everyday selves.

While webcams put the power of television in the hands of ordinary citizens, creating new possibilities for realism through the documentation and celebration of everyday life, this cutting edge technology is also available to those with less progressive agendas. Humiliation, always a major part of the agenda in Arizona's Maricopa county, was certainly part of the program when the decision was made to install a webcam in the county jail. Here, anyone in the jail had no choice but to have their images broadcast to anyone who chanced to be viewing. Then again, many private employers have also found webcams useful for a number of projects. According to Larry Kahaner, writing in the November 2000 issue of Information Week, "Once the province of hobbyists and show-all Net exhibitionists, Webcams have entered the world of commercial security". Now managers can keep constant tabs on their employees, frequently without their knowledge or consent. While some managers argue that these cams are there to prevent theft or increase safety, there is a growing sentiment that this may be a pernicious first step towards total surveillance. In The Road Ahead, his manifesto in favor of a corporatized future, Bill Gates himself weighs in on the potential of the webcam: "What today seems like digital Big Brother might one day become the norm if the alternative is being left at the mercy of terrorists and criminals".

At its worst, network reality television threatens to completely erode the idea and promise of realism by utterly liquidating the very term with heavy handed narratives and processes of production so controlled that their appeal to spontaneity and chance seems at best naive and at worst the culture industry's equivalent of tobacco companies explaining the ways in which smoking is beneficial to one's health. Even beyond the conceptual problems there is also the fact that many of these shows were developed as a way to avoid the looming writer's strike, and continued only when the producers and networks discovered that they could pay far fewer people far less money while generating enormous advertising revenues. This line of analysis is perhaps closest to the Marxist traditions of Adorno and the Frankfurt school as well as Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle. If anything, this is usually the standard party line for cultural critics, and the power and truth of the analysis should not be overlooked. Nonetheless, such monolithic pronouncements were made more easily in the days of a far more centralized culture industry, with only a few major studios and a handful of networks controlling almost everything anyone might see. While reality television and the promise of new television technologies should certainly be criticized, undeniably this must take the form of a dialectical argument, for the new technologies are themselves more dispersed and open-ended, providing the space for a dialectical response that was often missing in the older, more centralized days of major networks.

Reality television is doubtless here to stay, and while most of it is deeply problematic, there is, as I have tried to demonstrate throughout, also a utopian potential buried within it. Just as Warhol's superstars created a critique of the spectacle by embodying it, perhaps the notion that anyone might become a celebrity can serve a similar critical function. And, while reality television cast members haven't engaged in outright resistance yet, there is just enough room to think that it is only a matter of time. Remember that the cast of the first season of Big Brother almost staged a walkout. Despite the fact that reality television is for the most part unadulterated fiction, the more of it there is the more likely it is that those who participate, our new celebrities, might just find ways to turn the lie of the genre on its head. Perhaps even the network versions of reality will someday come a bit closer to the new kinds of realism being pioneered by the thousands of webcam operators and their millions of viewers.

This is David Banash's first article for Bad Subjects.

Copyright © 2001 by David Banash. All rights reserved.