The fact that “reality television” has taken over primetime airwaves isn’t a comment on how much television has changed, but a reflection on our growing interest in personalities. We no longer need to gossip about others in our neighborhood or church to get our nosy fix. Cable television has given us permission to be as nosy as we want, all from the comfort and safety of our living room. We can look as deeply as we like into a vast array of personalities. And not just a bunch of Everyman or Everywoman’s on an island anymore, either. Now we can delve into the personalities of glue sniffers, adulterers, the rich and aloof in Orange County, bounty hunters, former WWF stars (pretty much anything from the 80s is cool again), and of course, your average working stiffs like me who manage to get on television for about 10 of their 15 minutes before executives realize how boring we are.
This form of entertainment is so popular networks struggle to keep up with personality inflation. In an effort to keep the fragile attention of its viewers, new and bright and unique personalities are always sought after, probably more now than highly trained actors or writers skilled in the art of subtlety. Or the seedy side of “real life” is sought out, and tattoo artists, drug addicts, and porn stars fill our TV screens. My empirical evidence for this is that cameras actually follow around the Kardashian family…a family whose claim to fame is a lawyer patriarch and some Playboy spreads.
All of this is to say we are fascinated by personalities and we seem to befriend these people in a way that we never did with fictional characters. Fictional characters are the portrait of types, of ideas. They are the vehicle that a writer uses to express his point-of-view, ideas about conflict and resolution, and commentary on the issues of the day. A show like ER is often weighed down by commentary on the Iraq war, available healthcare and the way our society neglects the homeless. These are ideas, where problems are presented and solutions are offered, spoken by characters. Reality television offers us few, if any ideas, anything to chew on, any complexity.
The tie-in to matters of substance is, of course, the political races of our day. Much has already been made of the fact that this is the TV age, and the old adage that Nixon won his debate with Kennedy on radio but lost it on TV is a perfect example of this. But it’s beyond just appearances now. Now, we demand personality and energy to fill the screen. We seem to have less patience for ideas, for problems and solutions, much less complexity. For all of Barack Obama’s faults, he has a personality made for television and an “Aw shucks” persona so spot on it should be trademarked. Even more amazing, it’s his personality that is being demanded in a pinch: as political times get tighter, he must rely on his natural grace under pressure and motivating enthusiasm to resell his image as a personality worth trusting even if his ideas are rarely articulated and certainly nothing new. A hodgepodge of left-leaning ideas won’t bring about any bump in the polls. But a fiery speech just might.
On the other side is also a personality, a stubborn, loyal, and temperamental personality. But, while McCain won’t be confused with the head of a think tank any time soon, he is the product of a generation of ideas. Barry Goldwater and William Buckley built their careers around ideas, not charisma, and important, complex books were regularly offered by publishers. Now, Internet articles and blogs have replaced these books, and most political books are often short-sighted, politically expedient, and geared towards discrediting the person more than their ideas. With the notable exception of George Will, a lot of the op-ed articles I read are comprised of “paragraphs” that are one or two sentences in length. Can you really get to the nugget of ideas with so little depth?
At the same time, I am confident that ideas tend to win the day. Personalities are fickle, and most consumers tire of flash with no substance. It’s nice to eat at a 4-star restaurant for your anniversary once a year, but most of the time you want prime rib and mashed potatoes, not art deco on a plate. And as is usually the case throughout history, people pay the most attention when their pocketbooks are in the crosshairs. Complex issues like energy development, taxation and the role of government will likely rule the day this year more than race, gender, or charisma, because its simply where most Americans are feeling the pinch.
It is certainly a shame that much of the national discourse has been reduced to jabs, sound bites, and media spin. It is a shame that the truly breathtaking task before the founding fathers and the foundational questions they had to answer are now rolled up into campaign slogans and accusations. It is a shame that as Americans we don’t grapple with complex problems and prefer to talk about candidates as celebrities and not the harbingers of ideals. But it’s not impossible to imagine when all is said and done, ideas will win out, no matter the media. Books with complex ideas will continue to influence, if not sell millions of copies. And at the top of our institutions, businesses and governments, there will be more leaders who are average speakers with good ideas than great speakers with bad ideas.
Update: More thoughts on this here.