I congratulate every citizen whose understanding of this nation, of the world, will be made better and fuller by this development.”
—Dwight D. Eisenhower, May 22, 1958
dedication of NBC’s W-RC television and radio studio in Washington, DC
It is commonly observed that the televised coverage of the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy constituted the first broadly significant mass television event in American history.
Robert Caro, for example, has written that “Kennedy’s death was made more terrible because of television.” Because JFK had been the first president with a regular presence on television:
[T]he first detailed study of America’s reaction to the assassination found that four out of five of those surveyed (79 percent) felt with “the very deepest feeling” or “quite deeply” that not just a president but “someone very close and dear to them,” almost like a member of their own family, had died… .
Of the televised images from the three days after the assassination, Caro writes “they were engraved, indelibly, on the consciousness of the nation, and, to a remarkable extent, of the world, in a way that had never before happened with a major historical event.”
According to Marshall McLuhan, coverage of JFK’s funeral “manifested the power of TV to involve an entire population in a ritual process.”
Former CBS anchorman Dan Rather went so far as to make the medium the hero in his recounting of the events in a 1988 special entitled “Four Days in November”:
A whole nation was in shock. America needed calming, and it happened because television carried it all. Hour after hour, day after day, from murder to burial, the flow of images and pictures calmed the panic. Someone has said that those four days marked the coming of age of television.
Watching sporadic moments from the coverage of those days, what is particularly noteworthy when thinking about television as a medium developing within a particular context is the inverse relationship between its rudimentary technical and stylistic sophistication and the personal sophistication demanded of individuals presenting events through its means.
In addition to a famous, iconic, and oft-repeated moment like Walter Cronkite’s announcement of the death of the president on CBS, there are a host of other moments across all three broadcast networks wherein the tools employed to present the events betray, from a contemporary vantage point, the lack of sophistication of a medium not yet comprehensive in its capacity to synthesize and fully take advantage of it—a medium still partially rooted in the stylistic techniques of radio and the newspaper.
Consider this moment, for example, from the first half hour of NBC’s coverage on November 22, 1963. After a transfer from the New York studio to a local Dallas studio fails, newsman Bill Ryan explains the failure to his audience in terms that describe both general organizational strains and specific details of the technological workings of television:
As you can appreciate, communication facilities, as you just saw, went in and out. This is a time of what would probably best be described as controlled panic. The arrangements for that switch to Fort Worth were made entirely hastily under conditions of extreme pressure, and that is why the picture came and the audio didn’t—and then when the picture dropped, the audio came in.
Later on, while Frank McGee is on camera reporting information he is receiving over the telephone from Robert McNeill, Ryan explains this process to his audience:
Frank is speaking to NBC correspondent Robert McNeill. They have been in constant telephonic communication since the story first broke. Robert has been working at the hospital, and of course you can appreciate that there are times when he will be off gathering information—other times when he will come back to the phones and report to us. And so from time to time Frank and he will confer as to whether or not he has new information that he can add to what we already know about what happened in Dallas today.
As a result of the technical limitations of the television of the time, and the newness of the medium to a situation of such magnitude, it is not just the story but the technical process of conveying the story to the audience which requires articulate and contextualizing expression.
Within two hours of going on the air with news of the event, NBC is outside its New York studio with a remote unit in Rockefeller Plaza interviewing members of the public.
REPORTER JEFF PONT: Sir, how did you hear about of the President’s assassination?
MAN: A gentleman came into an office in which I was transacting business and mentioned it to us. At the time, I really wasn’t able to believe it. I had to hear it for myself. And unfortunately I did very shortly afterwards.
PONT: What is your feeling now?
MAN: I am terribly shocked and saddened by it—and, I would add, angered by it.
PONT: Why angered?
MAN: I think it was a horrible, senseless thing. And I hope that the rest of the country feels the same away.
Pont then evinces an early example of the by now familiar tendency of television to ask the leading and open-ended question to get the provocative and emotional response.
PONT: Do you think that this assassination somehow reflects a climate of opinion in the country now?
The answer he receives from the man, who has self-selected (or in any case, hasn’t refused) to be on television reveals a measure of complexity:
MAN: I hope that it doesn’t reflect a climate of opinion that is very prevalent in the country today. It certainly obviously reflects an opinion that some people hold. I hope that, as an American, and the other people, as Americans, do not generally hold this feeling.
The answer is threefold in its nuance: the man hopes that the “climate of opinion” reflected by the tragic event is not widespread, then concedes that “some people” obviously hold the sort of opinion that permits them to perpetrate so violent an act, and then reiterates his hope—this time including the exhortative and disciplining words “American” and “Americans”—that this “feeling” is not generally held (and if it is held—to draw out the implication of his invocation of national identity—it ought not to be held by Americans, as it does not befit Americans to hold such feelings).
Resisting the nuance of the man’s answer, Pont presses further by seizing on the man’s use of “some people”:
REPORTER: You said, “some people.” Who do you mean by that?
MAN: I don’t feel expert enough to express an opinion, but the only evidence that I have as to who these people are are these ultra conservative groups that have been distributing literature, and spreading hate in Texas, and who attacked Ambassador Stevenson short—what was it, about a week ago.
REPORTER: A little longer than that. Of course, no one knows if these people are the ones responsible.
MAN: No, certainly not.
The man, only under pressure, only after being peppered with five questions from Pont, and only after a two-and-a-half second pause, reveals who he thinks might be responsible for the shooting—but not before beginning with a caveat that he does not “feel expert enough to express an opinion,” and then pointing to “the only evidence” he has. Further, once the man expresses his opinion about culpability, Pont, in a comment revealing a tension between journalistic principles, on the one hand, and the imperative to serve the developing demands of the incipient medium, on the other, reminds the man and his viewers that “no one knows if these people are the ones responsible.”
Pont then turns to a woman in the crowd:
PONT: Ma’am, what was your reaction?
WOMAN: I was very shocked and saddened by the President’s death. I was getting some eyeglasses fitted when I first heard about it, and then I was riding on the bus when they finally told me he was dead.
Having shared her emotional response (“shocked and saddened”), the woman quickly moves into the factual logistical details surrounding her learning of the shooting. Unsatisfied, Pont presses for more a more explicit articulation of her feelings:
PONT: Do you find it difficult to believe even now?
WOMAN: I really do. I really find it difficult to believe now.
Failing to elicit the sort of monochromatic simplifying and amplifying of emotion that we now know serves television best in such situations, Pont once again launches into a highly leading question:
PONT: The President was in Dallas, which is of course part of the South. Do you think that somehow his racial policies are in any way connected with this?
WOMAN: That’s the first thing I thought of when I first heard about it, yes. I thought that probably some segregationist crackpot or something, just—they had it all planned out. I really believe that his blood will be on their hands forever, yes.
There is a confiding quality to the woman’s answer, as evidenced by her use of the word “yes” to twice punctuate it—as if to say, “to be honest.”
“That’s the first thing I thought of when I first heard about it, yes.”
“I really believe that his blood will be on their hands forever, yes.”
All of these exchanges reveal a conflict, in the relative infancy of the medium, between, on the one hand, the sort of complexities of presentation suited to consideration of a world-historical event, one’s place in it, and one’s relationship to others who, collectively and individually, also have a place in it and, by extension, in one’s own history, and—on the other hand—the needs of a medium best served and at it most powerful when eliding, flattening, and simplifying such complexities.
Beyond this conflict, these exchanges speak to a unique postwar, post-New Deal, post-GI Bill period where television was an ascendant force in society, but had not yet been present long enough to dispense its benefits over a period of generations. The people interviewed on the street are thus presumably quite familiar with television, but the landscapes created by the reporting of, and the means of apprehending the character of, news events have not yet been wholly shaped by television. Their ways of being on television therefore reveal a thoughtful reticence: a hesitance to jump to conclusions combined with a reluctance to reveal their more unruly feelings in public. In this way, their personal sophistication makes them naive and unsophisticated as television figures; at the same time, the lack of technical and stylistic sophistication of the medium itself reveals its naiveté with respect to the full potential of its power in such a circumstance. The latter is made further evident when Ryan takes the broadcast back from Pont and—rather than patronizingly affirming and capitalizing on the wisdom of the folk in a manner familiar to present-day television viewers—draws a sharp distinction between the ontology and methodology of the studio and that of the street. “These are,” says Ryan, “random samplings—what are called ‘man-in-the-street’ interviews.”
Still, there are, of course, a number of moments in the coverage over those four days, and across all three networks, whose emotional power translates to the more sophisticated television of the present—indeed, whose echoes continue to contribute to the structuring of the television of the present: Cronkite’s voice cracking with uncharacteristic emotion during his announcement; the playing of the largo movement from Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony No. 9 over Kennedy family images in what Rather called a “hastily prepared biography CBS News broadcast that weekend;” members of the public viewing the flag-draped coffin in the rotunda; images of the president’s wife and children during the funeral procession; the riderless horse; the muffled drums; and so on.
The lessons of its power in the context of a dramatic national event, and of those durable moments in which it both conveyed and elicited strong emotions, were not lost on television. Indeed, television, subject to the pressures of commercial culture, and thus a necessary student of ruthless efficiency, would learn that a growing technical and stylistic sophistication could never necessarily remove, but could often significantly diminish, the need for the actually momentous event in order to convey and elicit emotion at peak pitch. What had been required to present something like the coverage of the Kennedy assassination—namely, something like the Kennedy assassination—was partially overcome by television’s ambition and ability to create its own “events.”
The coverage of the Kennedy assassination, in other words, became a Q Source for subsequent manifestations of television programming, whatever the genre. The solemnity surrounding the supposed cultural importance of the existence and success of even the most arrantly frivolous programs, for example, combined with their ability to convey and elicit heightened emotion, combined with their ability to forge strong identifications between audience and characters, combined with their manufactured “must watch” episodes (season and franchise “finales;” episodes in which favorite characters leave; season premieres; and so on) does not mean they overtly equated themselves with the Kennedy assassination. What it does mean, however, is that they have been in the habit of offering themselves up for measure as events before a scale upon which their importance is some percentage of the top value of the most important television event: the coverage of the Kennedy assassination.
This is never done explicitly, or even necessarily consciously on the parts of individual practitioners; more often it was done within the gauzy haze of bad faith that structures the ethos and assumptions of television under commercial culture. More than this, television, paired with the sustained business trends towards consolidation and cost-cutting in which it is enmeshed, has in this century, facing threats from new technologies, begun to more ruthlessly play to its strengths by bringing to the fore and focusing more intently on those areas where it has always been at its strongest, most advantageous, and most powerful.
“In a scene no one will ever forget, Sean was sent home, brokenhearted.”
The ability to produce the genre of television known as “reality TV” at a cost lower than what is required to produce what was once standard fare in so-called “prime time”—situation comedies, dramatic programs, and “news magazines”—combined with its wide acceptance by television audiences has generated a logic by which ever more “reality TV” programs have been created in America since the turn of the century.
Of late (and, indeed, almost since its inception), there have been questions about whether “reality TV” is weakening as a genre, but this has to be considered within the broader crisis now confronting television as a whole as it contends with newer forms of media. In this context, “reality TV” has developed as a potent expression of the power of television in its traditional form at a time when that power is under threat.
The “reality” genre of television trades primarily on: (a) the willingness of members of the public to seek notoriety (and material gain); (b) the desire of the once more celebrated to regain some of the spotlight; (c) the hopes of the nascently ephemerally notable to prolong and more deeply entrench their notoriety. These goals, along with the goals of the program’s particular “game,” are generally pursued without regard for personal humiliation or degradation—and as a result, the genre itself is often derided as both a gutting of the medium and a concomitant of general cultural coarsening. This disparagement is, however, perhaps half misplaced, for the pairing of commercial culture and the technology of television has resulted in the latter’s realizing a level of technical and stylistic sophistication whose power reinforces and reflects general cultural trends while also more clearly revealing what the game has been about all along. In other words, while some cultural coarsening is manifested by “reality TV,” much of what is lamentable about it is accounted for by its being an especially potent projection, magnification, and amplification of the values of a world already partially wrought by the puissant tandem of television and commercial culture.
“I love Montana and I love how beautiful it is, but I’m most excited about spending time with the women.”
Very generally speaking, all instances of the “reality TV” genre belong to one of three subgenres: The Competition, The Lifestyle, or The Objective.
In The Competition, contestants are pitted against one another in a winner-takes-all game whose interest derives from its rules and obstacles as well as from the frequently present necessity of players to exploit one another by cooperating in transitory (and inexorably doomed) alliances of convenience in order to win.
The Lifestyle presents a less immediately ruthless vision—one in which the audience is invited to observe the day-to-day-in-the-life-of often already celebrated (but sometimes unknown) personages.
The Objective seeks to accomplish some task: a home remodeling, a personal makeover, the acquisition of a wedding dress, the modification of a favorite pet’s behavior.
These types aren’t hard and fast. Particular programs might combine elements from each category. A program that is primarily The Objective, for example, might encourage participants to achieve some end—and then reward (in the manner of The Competition) the one who does it best. Or a program that is foremost an instance of The Competition might delve into aspects of participants’ way of life, and so incorporate elements of The Lifestyle.
Beyond relatively low costs, the additional advantage of these programs is that they, more so than the situation comedy and dramatic programs they displaced, exist outside of history. That is, history as both cultural repository and unfolding process; history as structuring force; and history as a legacy and series of issues with which to engage—all are more easily ignored. It is, of course, the general habit of entertainment television in America to avoid engaging with politics, social dynamics, or individual development in any meaningful way. Even so, over the course of a successful series, events marking the passage of time must be acknowledged: actors age, become pregnant, or leave; ongoing storylines require attention and resolution; new characters are introduced. On “reality TV” programs, insulation from history is more fastidiously achieved. With The Competition and The Objective, everything is almost always the same (with the exception of the introduction of new “twists”), because, as with the game shows that were previously more prevalent, the participants are always new and the game is always familiar. With programs that exist in the subgenre of The Lifestyle, the people profiled might age, change their marital status, gain or have falling outs with friends, but, even more so than with soap operas, the lives chronicled are so exclusively engaged with issues and concerns that place them outside of history in any broad sense that the more things change on the surface, the more they reinforce the ahistorical (and, indeed, often asocial) ethos already at work in the program at hand. Every new situation, in other words, is actually the same situation whose concern is exclusively the perpetuation of the franchise and its properties.
Further, at the same time that history is ignored by “reality TV,” a Potemkin village substitute is presented in the form of the previous history of an individual program, which is invoked to legitimize the importance of the program.
If one accepts the premise advanced by Martin Esslin that in all of its forms “drama provides some of the principal role models by which individuals form their identity and ideals, sets patterns of communal behavior, forms values and aspirations and has become part of the collective fantasy life of the masses,” as well as McLuhan’s claim that “acceptable entertainment has to flatter and exploit the cultural and political assumptions of its land of origin,” then it is clear that the “reality TV” genre is at a special advantage in America. As Lewis Lapham told this magazine in its summer2012 issue:
Marshall McLuhan referred to the television screen as the “Pool of Narcissus,” because what’s usually looked for is a reflection of oneself—an ambience, an atmosphere, a mise-en-scene in which you feel yourself at home.
During a period in which moment-to-moment emotions of the self are the outsized and primary focus of drama, the emotion and empathy television under commercial culture seeks to elicit and exploit are more easily derived from a format in which putting oneself in another’s shoes is made especially effortless. “Reality TV,” with more efficiency than situation comedies or dramas, allows one, with unparalleled convenience, to imagine oneself as a participant in the situations presented because the observed participants are either (a) “regular people,” (b) dubious arrivistes in the world of celebrity, or (c) “fallen” (and thus already humiliated, all-too-human, and thoroughly familiar) stars. (This “regular people” ingredient, not incidentally, has long been a key to local television news’ predatory recipe for success as it exploits misfortunes befalling ordinary members of the citizenry in its longstanding role as business plan masquerading as tribune of the common man.) Of additional salience is the combination of humiliation and degradation that “reality TV” participants willingly undergo/bring upon themselves which allows one to easily sit in judgment upon observed behavior in a way that yields conclusions favorable to oneself and one’s imagined acts in the same situation. Thus, the viewer is doubly validated: first by having pre-existing goals and values (hunts for money, love, career opportunities, and so on) ratified; second by having methods more desperate than one’s own impugned and presented for ridicule.
“I am really excited to see AshLee in her element.”
Among the more robust examples of the “reality TV” genre is the ABC program “The Bachelor,” whose complete seventeenth season ran between January 7th and March 11th of 2013. “The Bachelor” incorporates all three “reality TV” subgenres into a simple premise: a young man putatively seeking a wife is presented with two dozen options in the form of young women ostensibly seeking a husband. Each episode profiles the man as well as individual women, includes group and one-on-one activities, and ends with one or more of the women being “sent home” after a ritualistically solemn “rose ceremony.” Survivors are given roses providing them steerage to the next episode while losers are eliminated from consideration (but provided the consolatory courtesy of a final address to the camera, delivered whilst riding in the back seat of a limousine or sport utility vehicle). At the end of the season, the young man proposes to a woman (although the implicit threat that the young man might “walk away” without choosing anyone because he has failed to find the love he sought is always a clear and present danger enhancing the drama).
There is a strong element of camp running through “The Bachelor,” whose production values combine the gestural sensibilities of an old romance novel cover, a telenovela, and the cluttered decadence of the sort of highly produced soft-core pornography that was widely available on pay TV channels prior to the arrival of the Internet. This camp, however, is a conscious part of a double game: on the one hand, it serves to enliven the “fairy tale” aspect of the program; on the other, it winks at its viewers by letting them know that it knows too.
A bit more explanation is in order on this last point. In its double game, “The Bachelor” presents itself as both a program to be watched on its own terms and as what is termed a “guilty pleasure.” The “guilty pleasure” exists as an exculpatory category indemnifying the viewer from active complicity while providing the additional advantage of a position of condescension from which to observe both the program’s participants and its more earnest viewers. Indeed, “The Bachelor” incorporates more earnest viewers as part of its entertainment by staging entr’acte episodes wherein members of the television audience are brought into contact with program participants in a television studio where they are invited to register their feelings, either individually (through quick interviews or reaction shots), or in aggregate (through cheers, silence, or groans of dissatisfaction). The inclusion and polling of these in-studio audience members amplifies the false distinction between the more sincere viewer, who accepts the program’s earnest intentions, and who belongs to a group that would be willing to go through the process of participating in a television taping, and the “guilty pleasure” viewer, who is more cynical, and who belongs to a group who would not.
Speaking to precisely this phenomenon, a 2013 New York Times article on the resurgence of “The Bachelor” franchise in its eleventh year (and seventeen season) noted that the program had stumbled upon a new subformula for revived success when it made the decision to cast a “heartbroken” “fan favorite” from the previous season’s “The Bachelorette” (the latter a franchise, spawned by “The Bachelor,” in which a woman putatively looking for a husband chooses among two dozen men ostensibly looking for a wife):
The shift allowed two audiences for the show to coexist: the traditional fans who still get carried away by the romantic promise every season and the viewers who typically get together to watch, whether in person or online, to enjoy the comedy and follow favorite characters.
And yet, these audiences are not as easily separated as that. Like the adolescent boy ambivalently confronting the artificiality of professional wrestling, it is hard to imagine that members of the “traditional” audience for “The Bachelor” are blind to the limits of “the romantic promise,” or that those watching “to enjoy the comedy and follow favorite characters” don’t make and proffer judgments on how things ought to turn out in order to maximize the (recognizably low) probability of lasting love:
For all the guilty-pleasure viewers, there is also a clear subset of fans who find themselves hate-watching “The Bachelor”—not because they hate the show as much as they hate themselves for getting sucked in to it and its silliness time and again.
“There are those who watch it ironically and those who watch it as the most romanticized wish fulfillment imaginable,” said Peter Roth, president of Warner Brothers Television. “All of those brokenhearted cynics are really rooting for this to work.”
The double game allows “The Bachelor” to sustain the importance of the “relationships” it portrays by denying the existence of anything of any real importance outside of them while simultaneously implicitly acknowledging its fatuousness by winking at au courant viewers.
“’Bachelor’ fans will agree our new bachelor, Sean, is sincerely ready to find his wife.”
Amidst the fetid smoke and meretricious mirrors is the show’s host, a ghoulishly bland personage who plays varying roles as solemn master of ceremonies, consigliore, headmaster, austere adjudicator of the rules, and therapist with rigid frame. The persistent bad faith manifested in his bearing and utterances is rigorously matched by an unflinching cipher-like mien which allows for the imputation of any straight-faced inner state but indifference to his frequent appearances.
Speaking directly to the camera on the grounds of the expansive hilltop estate in Los Angeles serving as the program’s home base, the host reintroduces Sean as the seventeenth season’s “Bachelor”:
Last season, Sean fell in love with Emily and thought he had truly found his soul mate. But in a scene no one will ever forget, Sean was sent home, brokenhearted. And now, more than ever, the most important thing in Sean’s life is to fall in love again, become a loving husband—and hopefully, one day, a father. And so tonight, Sean will embark on a new romantic journey to find the woman of his dreams.
The insistence on the sincerity of the contestant (“Sean is fantastic—probably the most sincere bachelor we’ve ever had on this show”) is matched by the program’s efforts to establish and maintain the authenticity of the motivations of the female contestants. This is done in two ways. The first is by featuring frequent footage of separate, one-on-one interviews which, through their implied informal intimacy, vouchsafe an “honest” expression of selves, feelings, and motivations predicated on television’s trump card: how people “seem” or “come across.”
“It’s such a comfortable feeling when I’m with Sean. I mean, being able to talk to someone who’s genuinely happy. Just a good heart. And just a happy guy. It’s just refreshing.”
“I just had my one-on-one with Sean, and it was great. It was just as amazing as I ever imagined it to be. He’s just such a sweet man.”
The second is by having an ongoing subplot in which the contestant (or contestants) present for the “wrong reasons” is ferreted out—first for (and by) other contestants, and finally for the “Bachelor” (who has been at risk of throwing his love away on someone unworthy).
“I hope he sees through what I see, and what many, many, many other people see in the house.”
“I’m tired of people being so manipulated. He deserves way better.”
“Who you get is a completely different girl than the house gets, and it just worries me for you.”
“Tierra never should have come on the show.”
Precisely what the “wrong reasons” are is left vague and undefined, but it’s not too great a leap to infer that it might have something to do with appearing on television in a search for notoriety instead of love. By pointing to the one or two people on the program with motivations not consonant with the “right reasons,” the program and its contestants can pretend there are reasons other than catching the public’s eye for appearing on “The Bachelor.”
Of course, “The Bachelor” doesn’t actually care if members of its audience question the motivations of its contestants—just so long as the efforts of “The Bachelor” to maintain the distinction between “good” and “bad” motivations are noted.
An additional feature of “The Bachelor” is its blithe collapsing or erasure of time and space. Precise time periods are generally vague on television—but this is an especially vital feature of “The Bachelor,” which, after all, (sort of) purports to present the unfolding of a (sort of) plausible love story (which, it turns out, takes place over the course of only six weeks of real time). Moreover, the disjointed presentation of geography that is so familiar a feature of the media of moving images is presented in gross caricature on “The Bachelor.”
Over the course of the seventeenth season of “The Bachelor,” for instance, the contestants, who begin in Los Angeles, travel to Montana, Alberta, St. Croix, Houston, Seattle, Missouri, and Thailand.
That each of these locations has its own history beyond serving as a background for a particular version of romance is, of course, of no concern to “The Bachelor.” And, indeed, it is a longstanding tendency of American commercial television, in all its forms, to simultaneously depict other regions of the world as no more than décor against which American stories are told, and to consolidate a series of American somewheres into a giant American nowhere—so it’s difficult to hold any single instance of this against “The Bachelor.” What “The Bachelor” does so effectively, however, is exaggerate this tendency to its limits by presenting a cartoonishly disjointed kaleidoscope of geography without consideration for anything beyond the immediate concerns of the show’s contestants.
“I am taken back by the beauty of Montana. It is absolutely gorgeous. And then at the same time to be holding hands with Sean and it just feels so comfortable and real and my heart is soaring…I feel like I’ve known this guy forever and I’ve never felt so close to someone before in such a little amount of time.”
“The Canadian Rockies are incredible, and Lake Louise is one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. I love the outdoors, and I cannot wait to just get out and explore. But the truth is, I’m not feeling so great because I have some doubts going into this week. I left Montana feeling really disappointed considering all the drama that went down.”
“The Sugar Mill was incredible. The view of the ocean was unbelievable, and there was so much history there. The women really enjoyed it, and so far the road trip is off to a wonderful start.”
“I’ve never been to Seattle, and I’m so excited to see Catherine.”
“I am so excited to be here, in the south of Thailand…It’s amazing to think that these are my last three girls.”
And yet this idea that there is no use in considering history, that there is no meaning in geography, that there is only one’s self and one’s moment-to-moment emotions is precisely the message of sophisticated television under commercial culture. While “The Bachelor” might present the idea more floridly than other programs, it is this message that is at highly developed television’s core. Well more than six decades in—at a time when television as a medium is threatened by newer technologies—its comparative advantages over other media are on full display in a robust showcase of technical and stylistic sophistication like “The Bachelor.”
What is especially noteworthy about the Kennedy assassination in the context of television’s later development was how rudimentary technology (primarily studio-based reporting; extremely cumbersome remote units; delayed presentation of filmed events; use of still photographs) was paired with a stylistic approach that now appears antiquated (the authoritative voice) to convey the message that a world-historical event of great importance had taken place and that viewers of television were not just witnesses to it but were participants in it. The nature of the event, combined with the tendency of television (no matter how primitive) to magnify and personalize, revealed a power that was instructive for events (and nonevents) of lesser import. Subsequently, television programs under commercial culture have aspired to approximate—not completely, but in some measure—the “television event” importance and emotional pull of the assassination’s coverage.
“The Bachelor,” which premiered nearly forty years later, is both an inversion and amplification of the television-specific aspects and emotional resonances of the Kennedy event: at bottom, it pretends importance but in fact makes no actual claim to it, while simultaneously, and strenuously, it demands that its audience participate and produce strong and varying moment-to-moment emotions in response to what it offers. Further, it flatters the cultural emphasis on the self—largely absent, or, in any case, only incipiently present during the coverage of the Kennedy event—by predicating its drama on both the transient emotions of individual characters and the constant comparison these characters invite viewers to make with themselves.
At its root, television at its most sophisticated under commercial culture is a distorting medium of dishonesty: manufacturing an artificially transparent place of importance while preying on empathy in particular and emotion in general for promotional purposes. Seen in this context, “The Bachelor” is a great television program. More than anything, it, as a sophisticated manifestation and exemplification of television under commercial culture, shows us what has been on television all along.
“For Sean Lowe, it’s a second chance at love. And no one deserves it more.”