The Specter of Reality TV
“Because heavenly fire no longer falls on corrupted cities, it is the camera lens that, like a laser, comes to pierce lived reality in order to put it to death.”
“Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation”
Ghosts of Authenticity
Reality TV at its core is built on attempts to standardize and commodify the “Realness” of human experience, for the sake of ratings and spectacle production. America’s Got Talent (AGT) is an archetypal example of this, because of how effective its formula is at stirring emotion and drawing images of authenticity.1placeholder One component of the show is attempts at genuine emotion and talent, as the show becomes a stage on which the acts play themselves out. Another is hype creation, where shots at creating “viral”2placeholder content are taken. A third component is fetishization of the image, up to and including the implicit sexualization of child acts.3placeholder Shows such as AGT force us to confront the way that authenticity itself has become a fungible commodity. Each made-for-T.V moment is in some ways unique, however the sensations they are designed to invoke are homogeneous and replaceable. The pressures of capital and spectacle have corrosive effects on those living under them. AGT is but one example of how authenticity is haunted by its own artificiality. Any notion of a pure authenticity is dead, and its ghost haunts all. That said, we can learn to live with the realities of our ghosts and prevent them from dominating our lives.
Simulacra and Simulation is a book by Jean Baudrillard, a seminal text in social theory. As Baudrillard uses these terms, simulacrum is a copy of a copy of a copy (potentially repeating ad nauseum), with no necessity of an original existing anymore. Likewise, simulation is a pseudo-reproduction of a system, an imagining of what could be.
Society of the Spectacle is a book by Guy Debord, an influential culture analysis piece. As Debord uses it, spectacle is a multifaceted term. In some contexts, it has more of an economic implication, with ties to capitalism, the creation of capital, and the way that monetary exchange reflects itself into cultural creations. In other contexts, it is more theoretical, analysing the creation and impacts of ideology and social norms.
“It is still to this ideology of lived experience – exhumation of the real in its fundamental banality, in its radical authenticity – that the American TV verité experiment attempted on the Loud family in 1971 refers: seven months of uninterrupted shooting, three hundred hours of nonstop broadcasting…” (Baudrillard, 27)
America’s Got Talent (AGT) is a broad-field talent show. Unlike shows such as The Voice or So You Think You Can Dance, AGT isn’t built around a single avenue of performance. It instead draws contestants from many different performance mediums. It has musicians, magicians, daredevils, comedians, and entertainers of all sorts, all of whom compete for a million dollar prize. The show’s season begins with auditions, in which the 3 or 4 judges watch performances and decide whether to advance them. Each judge has a buzzer linked to a large light-up X hanging over the stage, and if they hit it, the X lights up alongside a loud buzzing sound. If all judges hit their buzzers, the performer’s performance is ended immediately. Early on, the judges make the final calls regarding who advances through the competition. As the show progresses, they eventually add public votes. These start off with partially determining each week’s advancements. By the end of the show, these votes are said to decide everything. Although AGT is quite effective at creating spectacle, it is by no means unique in its methods, audience, and goals.
“Stars – spectacular representations of living human beings – project this general banality into images of permitted roles. As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations that they actually live”. (Debord, 24)
A long-time reality T.V judge and host, Simon Cowell is a core component of the show’s brand. Like Gordan Ramsey, it’s hard to separate the harsh cultivated persona from the person’s everyday attitude. One can’t say whether Cowell plays up his acerbic harshness or his compassion, but both are present in the image he curates for himself on set.
Howie Mandel began as a rather run of the mill judge, showcasing an attitude of polite formality. However, his demeanor shifted on a dime when Simon Cowell received a brutal back injury at home during the 15th season. During Simon’s absence from the show, Mandel appeared to become far more critical of contestants, even to the point of blunt rudeness. The timing of this shift in persona suggests that he was tapped by studio executives to take over aspects of Simon’s attitude.
The authenticity construction reaches its peak with hype-man Terry Crews. Ever charismatic, they position him on the side of the stage, cutting the camera to him in order to catch his exclamations of “WOW!”. However, the simulation goes a layer deeper, as they occasionally bring Crews into the acts. For example, one daredevil act involved a man laying overtop a sword, with a cinderblock on his back. They had Crews run up to him, grab a sledgehammer, and smash the cinderblock, while the man remained unharmed by the sword. Each exclamation of shock by Crews is essentially indistinguishable from any other, as they each serve the same purpose. They are to make the entertainment more legible, by hand-feeding the audience the emotions that the producers of the show want them to feel.
Spectacular Technologies, Manufactory of Authenticity
“…power plays at the real, plays at crisis, plays at remanufacturing artificial, social, economic, and political stakes.” (Baudrillard, 22)
“The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map that is identical to the territory it represents.” (Debord, 11)
AGT is a petri dish in which new technologies of spectacle creation are born and refined. The most recent season (#15) brought together a series of reality TV “technologies”, ones designed and implemented to create the simulation of genuine emotion. They cut to the show about 10-15 seconds before the scene starts on set, showing the judges receiving their last makeup touch-ups, bantering, and prepping for “Action” to be called. Ironically, they are using the show’s production as a way to try to appear authentic, via unveiling behind the scenes content as part of the show itself. It portrays unfathomably rich celebrities receiving makeup as some kind of authentic human experience.
Some of the other authenticity-constructing technologies within AGT are the golden buzzer, the voting systems, and “saving” rounds. Each of these ideas represents an aspect of the show’s spectacle, its gravitas. The golden buzzer was introduced in season 9, and it quickly became a mechanism for “made-for-viral” content creation. While the season 9 golden buzzer was more for breaking ties between judges, in seasons 10 and beyond, it immediately sends the talent who receives it to the final stage of the show. With regard to the voting system, the numbers are deliberately inflated. While AGT doesn’t release the raw vote counts for the participants, they do allow viewers to vote for each act up to 10 times. They can also vote via up to 3 different methods. Thus, a single voter can make potentially nearly a hundred votes on a given night. The decisions around public voting allowances are surely deliberate and are likely tied to making each audience voter feel like their casting of the vote has an additional impact on the outcome. More problematically, because there are no releases of raw voting totals, and an entirely opaque vote-counting backend, it is impossible to know whether the winner on the stage of the show actually got the most votes. Finally, there are the “saving” rounds. Audiences are sometimes given the opportunity to vote to save one particular contestant from a group about to be eliminated. The phrasing implies a life-or-death situation, yet the reality of the situation couldn’t be much further from the truth.
The result of these technologies are simulacra, duplicated bodies of the “authentic” and “real”. The stakes are meticulously manufactured. In these cases, there is no original. It is narrative all the way down. The technologies copy ideas from other talent shows and reality T.V in general, but it is unclear if such ideas originated with reality T.V at all. Perhaps the lineage of these ideas can be traced to the birth of culture itself. This series of copies has a genealogy and an evolutionary element. One can examine the progression of the technologies within AGT and see how changes to the show were designed to increase viewership and spectacle engagement. Such goals are themselves subordinate to the central ideology of profit-gathering. They are symptoms of a deeper issue. Simulacral technologies such as these have the potential to bleed outward into cultural hegemonies, apparently resulting in infections of meaning. However, the conditions of postmodernity are in some regards centered around a revealing, rather than a creating. Authenticity appears to be corrupted by the forces of capital and spectacle, but in reality, these forces are more like refinements on an already existing set of circumstances. A reactionary ideology would likely make claims around the existence of a past true authenticity, and a present degradation of that original pure way of being. Such claims appear in fascism and primitivism.
One could see the issues that reality T.V presents to authenticity, and decide that the “solution” is to destroy all televisions or use authoritarian domination to dictate that all broadcasts fit some perceived perfection. However, such draconian solutions miss the very issue at hand: As Baudrillard suggests, the artifice goes all the way down. Authenticity narratives existed long before television’s invention. Reality T.V exacerbates a series of problems, but it is broadly speaking a symptom itself. Instead of rescuing some pure Authenticity, we must attempt to create a healthy relationship with the stories that haunt us.
AGT keeps trying to one-up itself. During the finale of season 16, Simon Cowell stood on his desk in order to do a “double standing ovation”. Every episode, every season has to be more spectacular, more jaw-dropping. Each one needs more clips clicked, more viewers. Every new batch of talent has to be the best in the show’s history, every finale has to be the greatest episode the show has yet produced. More accurately, when this striving fails (and it inevitably will), the show has to put on the auspices of perfection. It has to advance the spectacle ad nauseum, via the usage of simulatory social technologies. Through imitating authenticity, “reality” T.V partially undermines the very capacity for authentic social interactions. In trying to simulate reality, we lose track of the very reality we are supposed to be “experiencing”.
For a case study in this phenomenon, one can look at the winning performance of season 16. It was by Dustin Tavella, stage magician. According to AGT, it was the closest vote in the show’s history, however that cannot be independently confirmed. Tavella received criticism from some fans, as they were frustrated that he won with a final performance composed of only two magic tricks (with neither being particularly difficult or compelling in a vacuum). However, these fans missed the point that allowed Tavella to win. His act was more image than anything. It centered around creating a feeling of hope and inspiration, via a crescendo of positive music and thousands of little pieces of paper being blown throughout the stage and audience. Each piece of paper had the word “Give”. Looking at the context in which the show occurred, with a pandemic ravaging the world, it is clear as day why Tavella won (whether through audience votes or executive producer manipulation, we will never know). At least for some viewers, his victory was a farce. It was built on bargain bin hope and substanceless good feels. Tavella didn’t tell the audience to stand for something tangible or actionable. He simply massaged egos by making us feel like we give more, without us lifting a finger. This is but one example of reality T.V feel good stories; cheap narratives full of bland instant gratification.
An Ontology of Magics
One act trumps the rest in terms of its alignment with AGT itself: the Stage Magician. Core to magic are acts of misdirection, sleight of hand, and theatrics. Magic is fake as it pertains to the harnessing of ghosts, the creation of new matter. Magic is real insofar as it exists in the minds of observers. At its best, magic is wonder. It is a momentary escape into a world no longer dominated by the mundane and expected. However, magic is also (to varying degrees) a spectacle and a simulation. This is most clearly the case with mentalism and related magic performances. These acts can involve apparent mind reading, oftentimes tied to being able to predict what an audience member wrote on something. When a magician shuffles a deck of cards while keeping an audience member’s chosen card on top, there are many card manipulation methods that could be used. The trick retains its wonder via these options. However, some magic performances have an issue known in the trade as “too perfect”. Too perfect means that if a trick can clearly only be done one way, then many critically thinking audience members will recognize that one way. If a mentalist guesses an audience member’s hometown without engaging in a series of cold-read questions beforehand, then there is only one solid explanation: that the audience member was a plant, in on the trick from the start. They were always going to be chosen by the magician, and both had colluded ahead of time in order to allow the magician to be able to “predict” the answer every time. While this kind of performance isn’t inherently problematic, it sure raises questions when it occurs in a game show with a million-dollar prize. There have been plenty of examples of AGT magicians guessing answers written down by either members of the AGT audience or judges. Even though each one could swear up and down that there is no collusion, that the magic was real, the obvious incentives to collude remain. Additionally, no amount of evidence could completely exonerate the magicians, audience, and judges. The only way to strongly alleviate the doubt is to reveal exactly how one performed the trick, with a method that doesn’t require collusion at all. This raises its own problems, as by revealing the trick, the magic is dead. It’s like dissecting a frog or a joke.
To the child who sees a penny pulled out of their ear, magic is quite real. Behind the facade, the penny was in the magician’s hand the whole time. However, from this moment of trickery comes an experience of authentic wonder. Thus, magic has an ontological status. Ephemeral at most, its existence is itself ghostly. This status resembles the way a simulating patient exhibits signs of sickness.4placeholder
Perhaps reality T.V will eventually have to grapple with its own “too perfect” problem. If producers continue to sharpen the tools of authenticity simulation, there’s a chance that the output will be too sterile and too pure. Viewers may learn to recognize when the narrative is too effective and flawless, which could undermine the simulatory project itself. Perception is its own reality, which is a blessing and a curse. Varied appearances allow for a diversity of viewpoint, yet they also split us apart into our own islands of perspective. The value in simulatory technology is directly tied to the appearances they manifest in the minds of the consumers. If many believe the effects are well made and enjoyable, then the effects are undeniably effective. This phenomenon is reminiscent of idealism, the notion that mind and thought compose the underlying nature of reality.
A Death Knell, A Rebirth. Authenticity Haunted
Authenticity is challenged by attempts to construct, serialize, and sell it. Does the politician shake your hand because she likes you, or because she wants another voter? Some of both? Postmodernity is the unveiling of something that has always been present, that of narrative. Not all stories are equally real, but stories encompass all perspectives. Real or imaginary, they are all constructed. Thus, reality T.V ushers in its own era, the era of authenticity-death. What has died is the image of a pure authenticity, one that never existed in the first place. Its ghost now haunts us, a blessing and a curse. For it reveals new aspects of our lived condition, yet it also threatens aspects of our meaning.
All is not lost. In many regards the spectacular image dominates media and culture. However, there are still paths forward, as long as we recognize what always has been, and learn to rebuild something meaningful from the ashes of burnt-out stars. Hope for a better future can be a bridge between the imaginary and the real. One’s body, one’s world, one’s lived experience are all actual. Like the wonder of experiencing magic, there really is a glimmer of the authentic underneath the artifice of narrative. That seed of reality can add value and depth to the stories we tell, grounding them in flesh and blood. Thus, I reject the nihilism that crops up in conversations around simulacra and spectacle. The society of spectacle is indeed masking the lived experience of those suffering under it (those marginalized and harmed by cultural normativity, hegemonic domination, and commodification of all things). But the simulation isn’t emptiness. Aspects of the spectacle are themselves touching upon the real. As Littré describes, one who imitates an ill person will take on some symptoms of illness (his example is staying in bed). The core issue here is the way that simulation and spectacle are subordinated by systems of hegemonic domination and commodification. Reality television is dangerous. The danger lies in the seduction, the way it can manipulate attention. Such television drags attention into a black hole, a simulated pseudo-reality, full of happy endings and spectacular narratives. However, reality T.V is itself a symptom of a larger crisis of meaning. When authenticity is degraded, people often search for ways to fill the void. When the perverse incentives of profit and viewership-chasing are present, authenticity becomes just another label used to sell a product. Abolishing reality T.V would be in a sense reactionary, lashing out at the wrong target. If one is to consume that kind of media, or any media, a note of caution is warranted. What stories are told by such media? What memetics are spread? Who benefits from such narratives?
Authenticity cannot be proven axiomatically in any useful way. But that simply means it isn’t a tautology. Realness can only be encountered, felt, experienced. To try to analyze and rationalize lived experience is like dissecting a frog, you understand it better but the frog dies in the process. When putting something in terms of argument and academic thought, there is always the specter of artifice. No description can represent a one-to-one match with an experience or an event. When one attempts to boil down authenticity into a commodifiable and pure form, the resulting resource is separated from the experiences it purports to represent. With awareness of this reality, one can take steps to mitigate the potential harms of the disconnect between narrative and experience. Though we construct our intersubjective and personal realities, that doesn’t make them fake. Through discourse and connection, we can bridge the gaps between us, and learn to live with the ghosts that haunt us. A bridge is a construct, and we rely on those to traverse valleys and rivers. They seem real enough to me.
Baudillard, J., & Glaser, S. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press.
Debord, G., & Knab, K. (2014). The Society of Spectacle. Bureau of Public Secrets.
I can’t help being reminded of the Black Mirror episode “15 Million Merits”.
Virality has a new meaning within the COVID-19 Era.
For example, in one episode, a child came on stage with a mood board covered in “I <3 Simon Cowell” imagery, while wearing rather problematic attire.
“To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But it is more complicated than that because simulating is not pretending: ‘Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms’ (Littre). Therefore, pretending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary.’ Is the simulator sick or not, given that he produces ‘true’ symptoms? Objectively one cannot treat him as being either ill or not ill. Psychology and medicine stop at this point, forestalled by the illness’s henceforth undiscoverable truth. For if any symptom can be ‘produced,’ and can no longer be taken as a fact of nature, then every illness can be considered as simulatable and simulated, and medicine loses its meaning since it only knows how to treat ‘real’ illnesses according to their objective causes” (Baudrillard 3).