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Image Slaves

The phenomenon of reality television represents the increasing trend toward the corporate colonization of the 'real.'
Alison Hearn

Issue #69, June 2004

Part One

The question isn't 'are they the right color to be slaves?' but 'are they vulnerable enough to be enslaved?' The criteria of enslavement today do not concern color, tribe or religion; they focus on weakness, gullibility and deprivation. . .
— Kevin Bales, Disposable People


I'm in Boston at a popular bar called The Rack. The bar is full of young adults, only they're not drinking or eating or chatting each other up. They are all sitting at tables writing intently. These 18 to 24 year olds are not studying for exams in this famous college town; they are filling out applications to audition for an MTV 'real movie' called The Real Cancun.

I slide in next to some kids at a booth and introduce myself. I have a tape-recorder with me, am middle-aged and, I assume, reasonably legitimate-looking. But, before I get a chance to explain my project and directly ask for their consent, one of them says "YES! I'd love to be interviewed, what do you want to know?" The others perk up and pay attention. I sense they think this is part of the audition. What the hell, I figure, so I turn the recorder on and ask for their names. They all reply eagerly, sitting up straight, flipping their hair, and, with cadences down pat, like car salesman trying to close a deal, they offer me their best pitch:

"My name's John and I'm a 20 year old Boston native with a great sense of humor and an adventuresome spirit."
"I'm Jenny. I'm planning to be a nurse, but being in this movie is my destiny! It would be a dream come true. . ."
"Hi, I'm Matt. I'm 19 years old and I really feel I have something special to share with the world. . ."

Please Stand By - television test patternI feel assaulted by shiny happy people; these guys are showing me their well-rehearsed personas and offering them up to me for my own use. I hesitate and then set the record straight. "Okay look, I'm an academic," I confess, "chances are really good it will be a few years until any of the results of this research sees the light of day, if at all. Any quotes I use will be anonymous, and, sadly, there won't be any photos in the book I'm working on."

Beat. "Oh. Ummm. Well that's cool. What do you want to know?" says John. And the interview begins.


'Reality' now sits alongside 'comedy' or 'drama' as a major genre in broadcast television. The networks have entire divisions devoted to 'reality' with VPs in charge. Six out of the twelve top-rated programs last season in US primetime were 'reality' shows; with American Idol's Tuesday and Wednesday night shows repeatedly capturing the top two spots. 'Reality' is now an Emmy category.

Never mind that no one really knows what, exactly, the generic term 'reality' refers to — game show, soap opera, action-adventure, drama, sports. 'Reality' has made over the industry in an incredibly short period of time, economically, textually and culturally. Industry people recognize that the term 'reality television' signifies, not generic coherence, but common modes of production: these shows use 'real people' or 'non-actors' as their talent, in some instances 'real contexts' for sets, and, on occasion, amateur or non-professionally produced video tapes for their content. Chad Raphael has called these things "nontraditional labor and production inputs." Producers of reality television series routinely by-pass unionized labor.

In the simplest sense, 'reality television' names a set of cost-cutting measures in television production brought in by management as a response to the economic pressures faced by broadcast television trans-nationally. Some of these pressures include increased competition in media markets and growing audience fragmentation, legislative deregulation, the weakening of public broadcasting, and, specifically in the case of American-based broadcast television, spiraling costs associated with the inflated demands of already existing media celebrities. The no-brainer solution to broadcast television's economic woes involves lowering production costs by self-consciously deploying the fantasy-image economy already in place to entice 'outsiders' to offer up their labor for free.

The economy of reality television is certainly the reason for its rise to prominence. It is cheap to produce and easy to sell, and the supply of labor is apparently endless. Everybody wants to be on television.


Pretty much everything I do is as if I'm being watched anyway.
— Mike, a twenty year old student from Salem State College

Over and over again in the interviews I conduct that day in Boston, and in subsequent interviews, potential reality show contestants claim they don't really care about the money; they only want the fame. These folks line up for hours, longing for the 'life-altering experience' of being a part of TV-land, hoping to generate a saleable image-commodity for themselves.

ATC Tele-Sales System - TV test patternThe reason for this desire for fame is clear enough. We live in the age of phantasmagoric capital, as Ernest Sternberg calls it, where image, not information, is the driving force in the market. Workers understand that our labor involves self-production in the form of persona. Just as we accept the loading up of goods with evocative emotions and meanings by advertisers, we understand that we, ourselves, must also consciously self-present in concrete and meaningful ways. It's just as important to 'be seen' as a good nurse, executive, flight attendant, as to actually do the tasks that make up the job; "the capacity for calculated posing" is a routine job requirement. Sternberg argues that notoriety and recognition serve as "proxy indicators" of personal ability in this new economy of the image. If a person is well known, then their persona-producing capacity must be good; therefore they must be a good bet — a good worker, a good hire.

Since 1953 American courts have recognized fame as property with market value. A person's fame is seen not as a part of their identity, but rather as a commodity they have labored to produce; it is their 'publicity right.' A person's fame or 'publicity right' is deemed to be fully alienable and descendible. Celebrity Joe Piscopo had to give away half of his publicity rights to his ex-wife in a divorce case. Whenever he trades on his name she gets half the profit. David Bowie issued Bowie Bonds in 1997 — securities based on the very fact of his fame. Tiger Woods made 50 million dollars in endorsement deals in the year 2000. Fame is big business.

Reality television is the fast lane to fame. Why work as a wage slave when the promise of big payoff from being on TV is only an audition away?

Part Two

[T]he new slavery appropriates the economic value of individuals while keeping them under complete coercive control — but without asserting ownership or accepting responsibility for their survival.
— Bales


Welcome to the coliseum. Here's your net and your trident. Get to work.
— Reality show producer to casting agent

The first round of auditions for The Real Cancun are conducted in groups of eight kids. The casting agent gathers them up and initiates a modified game of "I never-ever" — a college drinking game where someone names something they haven't ever done, and, if you have done it, you must drink a shot. In this case, people are asked to simply raise their hand. The casting agent starts, "I've never ever had a threesome". Within minutes these complete strangers are revealing incredibly intimate details of their lives. One guy is obsessive compulsive and has to keep wiping himself down with wet-naps during sex. One girl once woke up naked on a beach, miles from her hotel, during spring break with no memory of what had happened. One guy confesses to having had every sexually transmitted disease possible except AIDS. These kids are locked in a pitched battle to sell their most personal stories and experiences to the casting agent.

While the kids are working on trading their mundane selves in for shiny new image-commodities, the casting agents are looking for "eye candy with issues." They see their job simply as casting good potential 'characters', pretty people with good 'life-story arcs' — a conflicted back-story that remains unresolved and the desire to 'work through their issues' in the future, preferably in front of millions of people. "Non-pretty" people are chosen only if they are "telegenically ugly," like Kramer on Seinfeld.

The casting process is rigorous and involves detailed questionnaires, lengthy on-camera interviews, and psychological and background checks. The one-on-one interviews are intense, usually lasting over an hour. One casting agent confesses:

It's a very one-way pulling of information out of people, and when someone tells you something tragic or something like that, you get this weird mixture of emotions. You think 'wow that's really interesting and it'll be great for the show' and you're happy, but then you feel sorry for the person at the same time. It can be confusing. It's very intimate. You feel almost like a psychiatrist without any of the responsibility.

Reality television contestant contracts are notoriously exploitative. Participants trade away the rights to their identities almost entirely for the chance to enter the star-making machinery of the television industry. An outtake from an American Idol contract reads:

I hereby grant to Producer the unconditional right throughout the universe in perpetuity to use, simulate or portray'my name, likeness, voice, singing voice, personality, personal identification or personal experiences, my life story, biographical data, incidents, situations, events which heretofore occurred or hereafter occur. . . 

Other parties . . . may reveal and/or relate information about me of a personal, private, intimate, surprising, defamatory, disparaging, embarrassing or unfavorable nature that may be factual and/or fictional.

Test pattern - Soviet televisionIdol franchise king-pin Simon Fuller signs all the Idol finalists (in all the Idol competitions all over the globe) to exclusive agreements with his recording, management and merchandising companies. Contestants must agree to allow their likenesses to be used for sponsorships and endorsements, whether or not they themselves support the particular service or product. In this way 19 Entertainment manages all potential aspects of these contestants' careers. 19 Entertainment can opt-out of its agreements at any time with all but the winners of the competition. The contestants, however, cannot. It's been estimated that Fuller earned 60 million dollars in 2003.

The confidentiality clauses on reality television contracts are also ironclad. These shows depend on contestants remaining mum about the show's outcome until the airdate. The contracts threaten severe punishment for any such breach. The contracts also prevent contestants from disclosing anything at all about the working conditions on the show, the producers, the series as a whole, or the broadcast network. In other words, they are contractually obligated to have had nothing but a "great time" during the filming. American Idol contestants are liable for five million dollars should they say anything about their experience on the show. American Idol Rueben Stoddardt: "Without the show we wouldn't be recording artists. But we did a lot of commercials, dawg. We were exploited but not exploited. It just taught us a lot about the business. American Idol is what we like to call a crash course on the entertainment industry."


I just don't get what makes someone else more interesting than me. I mean everyone has something valuable to offer, right? How come these TV guys get to decide?
— John, a 20 year old Boston native, after his failed audition

Humiliation is foundational to reality television. It certainly marks its current labor practices. The TV industry enacts strategies of what contemporary management literature calls 'corporate seduction.' These 'seductive socialization programs,' use status as their carrot — merely by creating categories of inclusion and exclusion — "you are one of the chosen few out of a great field of candidates, we want you." In this way loyalty is created and any number of abuses can be done to the worker once loyalty is won and the seduction is complete. As Roy Lewicki writes, "if the seduction has worked it feels like free choice, and the organization does not have to kick you; you kick yourself."

More and more of people are voluntarily "kicking themselves" for the benefit of the image industry, hoping to generate their own individualized image-token in return. Paid nothing, often asked to foot their own bills for the privilege of subjecting themselves to the colonizing gaze of the camera, and captive to the interests of the owners who generate the terms of their 'fame,' these 'actively engaged' audience bodies have become, in a most explicit way, the sensuous raw material which the image industry cannibalizes to perpetuate its own interests.

The degree to which humiliation is blatantly enacted in the shows themselves varies. Sometimes it is simply implied. The recent spate of home and body makeover shows presumes 'original humiliation' on the part of their participants and then offers deliverance from it. But, more often, the performance of humiliation is overt — such as in the recent What's Hot show — in which judges use laser pointers to highlight the flaws in contestant's bodies. Humiliation is clearly the draw in the recent spate of Candid Camera-type shows like Punked or the Jamie Kennedy Experiment, in which celebrities and regular folks get humiliated in a good natured kind of way. In other instances, such as the weekly ritual of 'voting off' characteristic of both American Idol and Survivor, the humiliation involved is less obvious because it has been naturalized. The contestants who get voted off have simply been subject to the Darwinian process of survival of the fittest. They just didn't play the game well enough. These show's narratives make a virtue out of those who can successfully withstand the exclusion, judgment and heartless assessment of others, and use their own ability to manipulate to 'win.' More simply, they rehearse, over and over again, the story of sacrifice, pain, and exploitation required by life under capital.

Humiliation also marks the experience of watching reality television. Anecdotal responses often involve repulsion and shock at, both, the inane concepts behind the shows ("They're doing what? Chaining 50 midgets together to pull an airplane? Sending people to boot camp? Trying to break up couples? Making people live out in the bush for a year? Locking a group of strangers in portables for 3 months?") and at having watched them. In spite of these reactions, however, we seem to be drawn to the shows — like "flies to a glue-pot" — like passing motorists to a car wreck. Pleasure and humiliation are elided when we watch. Reality shows summon their viewers to ignore any initial shock or dismay, and to adopt, what Susan Sontag has called, a form of "professionalized looking." This kind of looking is engendered by the commodity system; it involves seeing through the lens of cold fiscal calculation. Reality television links this form of perceptual cruelty to the experience of cultural pleasure.

At the level of production, text, and reception, then, reality television shows perform, mine, and enforce a general cultural ethos of humiliation and masochism. Reality television reinforces at every level the terms of the masochistic contract offered us by techno-capital; non-unionized, mostly non-paid workers are enlisted through strategies of corporate seduction and the promise of fame, to produce stories that legitimate the broader ethos of the corporate regime that gave birth to them. Once on the shop floor workers are contractually obligated to comply with a version of reality fully delineated and controlled by their employers. Reality television programs might best be understood as the ideological sweatshops of techno-capital; their participants are its paradigmatic docile bodies.


Dear friend, I give you what you need, but you know the conditio sine qua non; you know the ink in which you have to sign yourself over to me; in providing for your pleasure, I fleece you.
— Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

A few weeks after the interviews at The Rack, Jenny, the student nurse calls me on my office phone: "I was just wondering whether you need anything else from me, you know, for your book thing." I explain to her that I have what I need from her, but thanks. I ask her how her audition went: "Oh, I didn't get past the first round. Some other girl in my group totally hogged all the attention. But I'm gonna go to the American Idol auditions in NYC, and I've sent a tape into Real World, so I'm still hoping. I still believe it's my destiny'"

NewsCorps, Viacom, Disney and General Electric all posted record profits in 2003. The television sectors of these corporations, Fox, CBS, ABC, NBC respectively, showed profit growth ranging from 6 to 14 percent. Reality shows such as Survivor, American Idol, and The Apprentice were routinely in the top 10-rated shows. Ad rates and revenues have increased. There can be no doubt that the reality television format is producing increased corporate earnings. But what else is being produced?

The phenomenon of reality television represents the increasing trend toward the corporate colonization of the 'real.' In the rhetorical use of the term 'real' to name the process of capture by the television camera and production as its subject, these shows work to legitimate a 'post-real' world — a world driven by the interests of corporate capital, mediated by new technology. In their colonization of the concepts of identity, relationship, meaningful interactivity, reality television shows work to construct and reinforce a system of cultural value, which involves the active production of the self as a saleable image-commodity. This process of self-commodification is both summoned and exploited by the media industries. In Kevin Bales' words, reality television's labor practices involve a system of control where "people become completely disposable tools for making money." In this age of image-capital, reality television produces the image-slave.

Alison Hearn is assistant professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario.

Images are early US or Soviet television test patterns.

Copyright © 2004 by Alison Hearn. All rights reserved.