Originally posted on the blog of Havas PR North America.
This is the second in a five-part series about how the news is being redefined by today’s real-time creative culture.
As I wrote in my last post, we’re in the midst of a radical reboot of what news actually is. What constitutes news? Purely objective fact or something messier and more ambiguous? Is it a final product or an ongoing process? A monolithic pronouncement or a community project? Much as some of us might want to believe otherwise, I think we all know the answers.
It’s hard to remember now, but before the late 1980s it wasn’t usual for people to express raw emotion in the media. Emotion on TV and radio was scripted, and even live shows were careful not to let things get too spontaneous; audiences were briefed before the shows went out, and laughter and applause were coordinated by people holding up boards. Many stations that broadcast “live” shows built in a one-minute time lag so that the editors could cut out anything risky before it went on air. That was especially important when unpredictable, potty-mouthed stars were being interviewed.
Of course, Americans were a little ahead of the game; we’ve always tended to be showier in the media. Oprah Winfrey’s show, which went national across the U.S. starting in 1986, gently pushed the boundaries of authentic emotion and emotional grandstanding. Those boundaries were blown open by “The Jerry Springer Show,” which hit the airwaves and dropped jaws beginning in 1991. MTV’s “The Real World” fueled the reality emo trend in 1992, and the 1995 BBC TV interview with Princess Diana set a new high-water mark for nitty-gritty insights into the lives of the high and mighty.
The emo trend gathered momentum through the ’90s as consumers developed an insatiable appetite for tearful public confessions, emotional outbursts and no-holds-barred confrontations. Who could have predicted that a Dutch production company would shape these elements and introduce others to develop a smash-hit format? When Endemol sprung the first “Big Brother” on the world in 1999, it whetted a global appetite for witnessing life in the raw—and for inviting the world in to witness private life. It’s probably no coincidence; the Dutch are known for keeping their curtains open. The format went global and is still going strong.
The sense of living life in full view of everybody has increasingly been the fate of celebrities, too. The long-lens paparazzi that chased Princess Diana from her Paris hotel to the fatal car crash in 1997 were just a foretaste; they have now been joined by millions of consumers with camera phones, always equipped to snap a photo or shoot a video of anybody remotely famous. Next up is Google Glass, which will let us livestream everything without having to reach for the phone.
With social media, the radical transparency of a few celebrities and reality TV hopefuls has become increasingly normal to the majority of people. Now hundreds of millions around the world are constantly sharing their personal details in status updates and tweets. The world can watch slice-of-life videos showing everything from the cute to the abhorrent, like the video of a Syrian rebel fighter cutting out an opponent’s heart and eating it.
But now that our default setting is private lives lived out in public and the engrossing, spontaneous authenticity of it all is constantly there for the sharing, we see what everyone has long suspected—that reality TV isn’t real in any meaningful way. With heavy-handed editing, carefully thought-out casting, outcome-provoking setups and free-flowing alcoholic beverages, the shows are as contrived as anything that emerges in the writers’ room. Now user-created content and reality TV are so mainstream that scripted shows can seem charmingly recherché. No wonder more than a few of them have adopted a faux-reality format, ranging from the ironic comedy of “The Office” to the fly-on-wall docudrama of “The Wire” and “Treme.”
Whatever the form of the content—news, documentary drama, comedy, sports—it’s there to attract attention and to engage audiences. Anybody who is professionally in the business of creating structured, crafted content is now competing for attention not only with purposeful reality formats but also with random user-created content.