Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Entertainment Creation

I will always celebrate Thursday, September 5th as TV Day. (Note: Not really; I barely remembered the date as I'm typing this, and we're just barely a week past that day. But that seemed like a dramatic opening.) A more accurate title might be Waiting in Line Day, but that just isn't as sexy as the first option. In any case, on that innocent-seeming day, just after summer officially ended, I attended tapings of both The Rachael Ray Show and The Colbert Report. I've already written (and, consequently, re-posted) about my experiences visiting The Martha Stewart Show. Much of the general TV-related sentiments that I there expressed apply also to these programs, sentiments which focused both on the sterility and obvious constructedness of the TV studio environment and on the confusing and self-contradictory nature of, basically, taking orders about expressing your entertainment/approval with/of an event, the job of which is usually defined as eliciting—without outside influence—entertainment and approval.

I would like to think now about a slightly different aspect of TV, namely, the audience aspect.

It’s no secret that people are seriously affected by their surroundings. There were, I’m almost certain, some basically good folks who just were following orders. Or consider, for example, that Stanford Prison Experiment, which is described as follows on the experiment’s official site by Philip G. Zimbardo, the dude who ran the study: “Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.”

Probably less interesting to psychologists is the effect of putting normal people in situations which are inherently good, or, maybe more accurately, situations in which it is easy to do good. Luckily, I’m not a psychologist. And I thought it was interesting how people acted while officially part of The Rachael Ray Show audience.

Take, for example, the line outside the TRRS studio which began forming at 10:15 AM, on a really hot and sunny early September morning. This line stretched probably half of a city block, and the relevant sidewalk was occasionally bisected by parking garage ramps and other store entrances. This is pretty common-sense and in the case of the car-ramps possibly an issue of self-preservation (and definitely my least compelling example), but I was impressed that everyone in line—without formal instruction—was self-conscious and considerate enough to arrange herself in a way which did not interfere with these other businesses. More compelling, though, were some other things which went on inside the studio. Like most daytime television programs, TRRS distributes baked goods and water bottles to audience members sequestered in the warehouse-like waiting area. My compatriots and I had just completed our complimentary bran muffins, when an extremely sweet middle-aged lady, wearing her brightest shirt1, walked by and offered to collect our trash for us, since she was on her way to the refuse receptacles anyway.

What accounts for this culture of politeness? I think it’s best that we acknowledge right here at the beginning that audience members of daytime TV shows are somewhat of a self-selecting crowd. I would have to think that there is a strong correlation between interest in craft-making and overall politeness. But I think it goes far beyond that. For one, I was always extremely self-conscious of my actions while in the studio. This tone is set fairly strongly by sentences such as this, again courtesy of the confirmation emails: “We have the right to deny anyone who does not follow guidelines. Thank you.” As someone who aspires to be a professional guy-who-works-with-words, I’m struck by the perfect balance of this sentence: they won’t tolerate any slipups, but they will enforce these “guidelines” in the most polite way possible (“Thank you”). Additionally, I was terrified of the headsets. Twice during the multiple-hour waiting period I left my seat to use the restroom (once to wash my friends hands; the bran muffins are surprisingly sticky), located in a little hallway just off the main studio. The three staff members (all headsetted) stationed in this hallway all noticeably came to attention when I approached. Ostensibly, they readied themselves to assist me in any way they could, but, also, they needed to maintain control of the audience. They probably weren’t talking about me on their headsets (“White male, leaving the holding area, appears to be heading towards the restroom.” “Roger.”), but at the time it seemed like they were.

This overarching control of the proceedings manifests itself in weird ways. I was just about to exit the restroom for the second time, when a skinny, headsetted employee named Peter2 entered the room and told me that I couldn’t leave just yet, because they were moving something in the hallway. RC, the Warm Up Guy, had mentioned earlier that we were having a surprise guest, and that he was sworn to secrecy about his/her identity, and I assumed that they were transporting the guest through the hallway into the studio, which is why I was stuck in the restroom with Peter, who, again, was a seriously nice guy. The guest turned out to be Natalie Coughlin (pronounced Cog-lin, according to the teleprompter; RC never once pronounced her name correctly), the Olympic swimmer who won six medals in Beijing. I’m not sure, though, why the producers made certain that the audience was kept in the dark regarding the identity of the surprise guest. Maybe they forgot that the studio audience would do whatever RC asked us to do. If they wanted us to feign surprise, we would have done that.

There is one more possible reason I can think of why TRRS is the realm of the polite. Somehow, daytime TV has this pre-ironic vibe. RC at one point proclaimed that “This show is the most fun on TV.” He was wrong, and everyone knew it. But the waiting audience members ate it up, unironically and everything. For most of the audience, it didn’t matter what type of crap appeared in front of us (and by extension, on the screens for home viewers); it was important that we were on TV and part of TV. Our limited participation in a formulaic, uninteresting show was ultimately meaningless3, but the show kept hammering home the point—explicitly and otherwise—that we were participating in TV. It’s like everyone turns into Kenneth Parcells as soon as the cameras are turned on. What is it about TV that does this to people? I think despite our intimacy with the set (we literally arrange our houses in a manner which optimizes the TV viewing experience), the proceedings inside the box seem foreign and untouchable. The implicit divide separating consumers of TV and producers of TV was always uncrossable. This barrier seems all the more intimidating with the advent of certain media (internet, obviously; but, also, with self-publishing options becoming more and more prevalent, perhaps books) which are so easily accessible. To be able to participate in TV is to bridge this gap, and to be creators of entertainment.

1. My absolute favorite part of attending tapings of television shows is getting to see the brightest objects in the wardrobes of a diverse collection of, generally, women who are available during the day. The confirmation email for these shows inevitably includes a line explaining that bright colors look best on camera. TRRS email specifically endorsed “solid, jewel-toned colors. (deep blues, reds, greens, etc).”

2. Peter is this extremely nice guy, from Wayne, NJ, who majored in communications and always wanted to be involved with TV. He started at the Food Network, knew someone who was involved with TRRS and subsequently made the jump. He had no obvious interest in food or whatever else Rachael Ray does that makes her famous. We spoke mostly about the DMV located in Wayne.

3. It should be noted that The Colbert Report took a vastly different approach. Whereas TRRS pitched itself as important because it was on TV, TCR thought of itself as the most important thing on TV. And I think it’s no coincidence that irony and cool were very much present in the evening showing of TCR. Unlike TRRS, they could get away with it.


joshua said...

You should watch this year's Hard Knocks, theres a superfan in it, "Mrs Price", who it seems only purpose in life is to watch the Cowboys practice and scream, "ROMO".

new york's delight said...

So true she never smiles like that when the camera is offf!!!

shannymarie said...

The smile turned off as quickly as the cameras.. that's for sure!