Amateur Power

Amateur Power

Novices Steal the Show As Television Plays Who Wants to Be a Star

By Tom Shales   /  Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007; Page M01

"What is this, amateur night?!"

Once upon another time, that was the ultimate insult — as when
bellowed by a bombastic director at performers rehearsing a play
sloppily in the classic movie musical "42nd Street." But the slur has
lost its punch. Any given evening, on any broadcast or cable network,
could be amateur night now, and suffer no more for it than high ratings
and crowds of commercials.

 

CBS's

CBS’s
"Survivor" was the first hit reality show, setting off a network rush
for similar programming and changing the TV industry. (By Monty Brinton — Cbs Via Ap)

Television has been invaded by, and perhaps risks being overrun with,
ordinary folk who have seeped through the screen much as Alice smushed
through the looking glass. Amateurs are pouring in from right next
door, down the street or upstairs in one of the kids’ rooms. Amateur
nights turn into amateur weeks, amateur months, amateur years — maybe
an amateur decade is but the beginning of the first Amateur Century.

It’s topsy-turvy time: The audience is the show, the show is the
audience ("the audience" meaning "the viewer" — although on such
programs as "The Jerry Springer
Show" and "Oprah," studio audiences participate to the point of
performing). The invaders are not commonly called "amateurs"; nor are
they called "civilians," a traditionally derisive term used by people
in show business when referring to those who aren’t. Here we call them
amateurs for the sake of convenience, but like all lines in TV, the one
between amateur and professional gets blurrier all the time.

In an age when TV cameras are nearly as commonly owned as TV sets —
and when amateur auteurs at home produce films that are uplinked to
millions of screens, a la YouTube
— being on television is no longer such a big deal. (It’s certainly
not the intimidating ordeal it was decades ago when Jackie Gleason’s
petrified Ralph Kramden on "The Honeymooners" stammered "hommina
hommina hommina" on a quiz show.)

Indeed, contestants on this summer’s game shows "Singing Bee"
(returning in the fall) and "Don’t Forget the Lyrics" were bubbling
over with bravado, bouncing and flouncing with seemingly uncontainable
glee, appearing to be as comfy on-camera as at home on-couch.

Professional actors couldn’t have simulated infectious cheerfulness any
more credibly. On reality TV, real people have mastered the art of
faking it. They learned by watching years of old-fashioned television
dominated by professional actors. Now, more and more shows are
ballyhooed as being "unscripted" and performed by non-pros. It’s the
blogging, the blogification, of television, and it naturally has roots
in the Internet the way so many things do.

Stars of the Internet somehow retain their amateur standing — and
credibility not granted to most professionials working at big-time TV
networks — until that bittersweet moment when a network looks down,
sees their work and plucks it up for dissemination via airwaves,
satellites or cable’s cables. The Web can have a strangely
authenticating effect, such as when Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake created a hilarious video that aired on "Saturday Night Live" but only became a bona fide sensation when the uncensored version was all over YouTube, bleeped words restored.

Amateurs have long been represented on television. A half-century ago,
viewers could also watch "Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour," a talent
competition not entirely unlike today’s megahit "American Idol," or watch the ancient ancestors of "America’s Got Talent." Where amateurs were once the proverbial trickle, they are now the perpetual flood.

They don’t have to be aspiring singers or dancers. They can just be
people playing themselves, or hyped and phonied-up versions of
themselves, on any of TV’s so-called reality shows. "Survivor"
jet-propelled the trend, conveniently enough at the start of the
century, in 2000, although MTV‘s "Real World" and a few other reality shows preceded it. "Survivor" proved the genre could work not just on MTV but on CBS, a big-time mainstream network.

For broadcast networks, the switch to reality programming means lower
production costs and higher profit margins per show, to help make up
for the overall plummet in viewership (many viewers having migrated to
basic cable). It adds up to a massive trend toward downsizing.

Just who is an amateur these days? It isn’t so clear anymore.

Outward signs and telltale indications of the new "real" reality are
everywhere — indications that we are deeply into a major, fundamental
role reversal, a reordering of the centuries-old relationship between
who’s onstage and who’s watching, a devaluing of professionalism and a
new premium on amateurism. There’s been a kind of perverse
democratization of mass media, fostered by the Internet and its blogs.
At its worst, it trashes the idea of knowledgeable authority as being
exclusionary or elitist — and holds up know-nothing opinionators as
morally equal, or superior, sources of edification.

Being well-schooled, well-trained and experienced is actually acquiring
a taint, perhaps partly the result of authority figures and celebrities
being caught lying, or living lies, and thus fostering cynicism.

In television, what was becoming a star shortage has been abated by
simply throwing real people into the mix and calling them stars; then
they pop up in fanzines and the National Enquirer side-by-side with Brad Pitt and Britney Spears.
Even if the people plucked from obscurity are coached and prompted and
rehearsed before their golden moment arrives, their presence on the air
serves as some kind of reassuring authentication for the folks at home
— at home for now, but awaiting their own turns on the tube.

The mind-set has taken hold to such a degree that true professionalism
is sometimes portrayed as a liability, alien and suspect, while
amateurism is extolled. "Real people, not actors" is the explicit or
implicit promise of everything from soft-core porn ("Girls Gone Wild"
and "Guys Gone Wild" DVDs with "no actors" stripping off their clothes)
and hard-core porn (where the term "amateur" is a big selling point) to
CBS’s "Survivor" and its spinoffs "The Amazing Race" and "Big Brother."

As one example of the blurred line, the professional performers’ union
AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) is coming
to the rescue of children allegedly exploited and poorly treated during
the production of "Kid Nation," a CBS reality show premiering on Sept.
19. Many of AFTRA’s agreements and hard-won protections apply to all
those who appear on commercial broadcasts, whether they’re dues-paying
members or not.

And then there are quiz shows, which for years the networks wouldn’t go
near because the genre died a scandalous death at the end of the 1950s.
The stigma eventually faded, though, and prime-time network quiz shows
came roaring back, riding the wave of amateur infiltration. NBC‘s
import "The Weakest Link" and ABC’s "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"
spearheaded the new incarnation. Such series as "Power of 10" with Drew Carey and "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" with Jeff Foxworthy keep it going, with long lines of real-people contestants anxious to perform.

And then there’s "American Idol," the Tyrannosaurus rex
of reality hits, a phenomenon that spiked the mania not for game shows
but for "talent" competitions — a format that has broadened on other
shows to include not only commonly recognized talents but things like
cooking, ballroom dancing, modeling, filmmaking, rodeo clowning and
anything else that can somehow be turned into a game. Television has
obviously stretched those boundaries; thus raising children can be a
game, building a house can be a game, finding a mate very definitely
can be a game. It’s always been one? Maybe a game for the participants,
but now it’s also a spectator sport.

"Divorce Wars," being developed by MyNetwork TV, is a Dr. Phil
spinoff in which, reports trade paper TV Week, "unhappy couples are
locked in a house for five days to resolve their differences" — while
cameras peer down from every corner and cranny. MyNet is also reviving
NBC’s "Meet My Folks" and Fox’s sleazy "Paradise Hotel," wherein people
involved in relationships are tempted to philander and carouse. Giving
into temptation is now good clean fun — or at least easily accessible
entertainment.

Where the new game and quiz shows differ from the old is largely in the demeanor of the contestants.

Contestants were once coached more on substance and style; they were
given the answers, but that gave way to attitude. The contestants must
be able to project elation, delight or dismay to a nearly hysterical
degree,

So why the rise in real-people shows, other than their practical
advantage of being cheaper to produce? It was once thought that there
was a downside to that because industry savants assumed the shows could
not be rerun. But they can. Fox launched a whole cable network
programmed with nothing but reality show reruns (with some original
productions joining them), while reruns of Ashton Kutcher‘s
"Candid Camera" rip-off, "Punk’d," are going into syndication. "Punk’d"
is an odd case in that the hidden-camera gags are played on so-called
celebrities, thus reducing them to the level of real people (on whom
most "Candid Camera" gags were played) and making the distinction even
murkier.

What do the cognoscenti say? Reality shows constitute the
commodification of real experience and turn it into marketable
merchandise. Commodification is the process by which something not
usually considered a product is transformed into one, into something
that can be branded, marketed and consumed. Reality TV plays to the
contemporary fascination with direct experience as opposed to
representational experience. This is television "stripped of any
meaningful aesthetic vision," says one scholarly authority, and it thus
becomes more accessible and less bothersome than "a work of ‘art’ such
as a scripted show."

Instead of watching actors play the Cleavers on "Leave It to Beaver,"
we now watch the equivalent of real Cleavers interacting with an
apparent spontaneity that plunks responsive chords in many a viewer’s
brain. Unfortunately, there is every possibility that bad reality shows
drive out bad scripted shows and good scripted shows indiscriminately.

And what about "good" reality shows? There are really no aesthetic
criteria by which to judge them. They tend to be judged in behavioral
terms; they are deplorably humiliating and embarrassing or just
harmless smirky fun. Contestants behave like raving lunatics or merely
like demonstrative extroverts. The fact that aesthetics don’t really
apply in considering these shows is a comment in itself, a sign that
television entertainment is becoming somehow smaller, even less
ambitious, even emptier than it was.

On the other hand, reality shows appeal to the audience partly
because typical viewers will have seen hundreds of hours of
manufactured drama and formulaic comedy by the time they reach
adolescence.

They know what characters will do before they do it; they are so
attuned to the primitive rhythms of sitcom humor that they know the
jokes before the setup, much less the punch line. Children can create
their own drama, conflict, competition and emotional reward with video
games, so their liberation from Hollywood contrivances can start before conditioning even begins.

So it is that while the "real" Cleavers are still around via reruns of "Leave It to Beaver" on Nick at Nite,
today’s version of the show would feature a truly really real Ward,
June, Wally and Beaver or some combination thereof, perhaps guessing
the lyrics to songs on a game show or spied upon while confined to
makeshift quarters on a reality show. One could say the reality shows
are automatically less pat, less predictable — except the genre is now
so common that people have learned how to behave, how to score the most
possible camera time for themselves, by watching how others have acted
on previous editions of the programs and emulating them.

Rather than showing signs of burning out, the trend toward amateurism,
and the credibility, real or imagined, that comes with it is branching
out to other media, and of course spreading on the Internet whence it
originated. Director John August, talking with actor Ryan Reynolds
in a recent issue of the Advocate, complained: "I get especially
frustrated by the celebrity blogs. The Internet was supposed to be the
rise of citizen journalism, but what it’s really become is the rise of
amateur celebrity journalism."

More frightening is the prescription for the media of tomorrow concocted by a conclave of Gannett
executives at a March powwow reported in the latest issue of Wired
magazine: "We must mix our content with professional journalism and
amateur contributions," read one of the PowerPoint
slides prepared by Gannett execs. "The future is pro-am." Perhaps we’re
moving into a time when "amateur" is the compliment and "professional"
is the pejorative, when illusions are even more illusory for being
passed off as truth. 

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