The passing of Jerry Springer, former mayor of Cincinnati and talk show host, prompted an outpouring of commentary about the nature of reality tv. One aspect which is worth exploring in detail, is the rise of celebrity culture. Springer, using the tried-and-true method of the talk show format, transformed that genre into something epic – 15 minutes of fame for the anonymous. However, his business model was parasitising something quite malign – the impact of turning celebrities into objects of adulation.
The obsessive preoccupation with celebrity is no longer just a harmless pursuit (if it was ever harmless). It is a malignant influence on our minds, crowding out our skeptical sensibilities and diverting our attention from the issues impacting our lives. George Monbiot wrote, back in 2016, that celebrity culture did not arise spontaneously. It is the deliberate outcome of a campaign by advertisers, marketing and the public relations industry.
Corporations, intent on selling their wares, employ celebrities to disguise their character as profiteering monoliths. Hedge funds and spreadsheets are boring, reducing everything to a balance sheet. Commercials, and the celebrities featured in them, make audiences feel they are part of something exciting and Instagrammable. Social media has contributed to the dissemination of celebrity culture; everyone with a Facebook account now seeks fame as its own reward.
The London School of Economics and Political Science commissioned a study in 2007 examining the impact of celebrity culture on the public. It found that increasing preoccupation with the minutiae of celebrity lives corresponded with a decreasing community connection. False celebrity friends crowd out the real connections of community participation and democratic engagement.
Springer himself, to be sure, was a cunning and smarmy television operator; he found a niche market – the tv talk show – and transformed it into a platform of seamy tabloid entertainment with an undercurrent of impending violence. No subject was off limits. Extramarital affairs, neighbourhood bickering, botched surgeries, family fights, secret crushes, incestuous relationships – Springer took all this material to be his ratings winners.
Will there be a fight? Will chairs be thrown? Egged on by a chanting audience (one particular favourite ‘trailer park whores!’ all the frailties of the anonymous, accompanied by fake moral outrage, were served on our tv screens for entertainment.
The tv talk show format was nothing new when Springer launched his particular version. Phil Donahue, the veteran talk show host, held a programme which featured every kind of subject under the sun. From serious political and social issues, to interviews with actors, Donahue was careful to avoid cultivating celebrity. He approached sociocultural issues with maturity and sensitivity; he was one of the first – perhaps the first – tv talk show hosts to interview transgender persons.
The purpose of the Donahue show was not titillation or audience giggling – but to invite understanding even amidst disagreement. Oprah Winfrey took the tv talk show into an area of tabloid entertainment. The fawning interviews with celebrities, the promotion of pseudoscience and New Age fantasyland ideas, the platforming of hucksters and medical quackery – Oprah went on the path of celebrity adulation which Springer used to his advantage.
While I do not intend to explore the burgeoning and complex relationship of sport with celebrity culture in this article, it is important to make some observations here. The crossover between sporting athletes and celebrity has been occurring for some time. The corporatisation of sport has certainly promoted the cultivation of the celebrity sportsperson. Australian golfer Greg Norman advertising Omega sea master dive watches; John McEnroe’s endorsement of Kellogg’s All Bran – the list of sportspersons making commercial endorsements is endless.
However, consider the case of English footballer and sports commentator Gary Lineker. After tweeting his criticism of UK government policy on refugees, Lineker found himself swiftly reprimanded – and sacked from his regular role as a commentator on Match of the Day. The BBC authorities pounced on one of their star recruits. Lineker tweeted an observation that the UK takes far fewer refugees than other European nations. Apparently this criticism of asylum seeker policy was enough to earn him disciplinary action. Lineker was reinstated on Match of the Day after a sustained public outcry in his defence.
This episode perfectly illustrates the adverse impact of celebrity culture – disengagement from political and social issues. The more we fixate on every detail of celebrity misadventures, the less we are engaging with the meaningful topics of our times. If you want to keep up with the Kardashians, that is fine. But just remember, you will still understand nothing of the Armenian experience; the 1915 genocide, the Communist period, the 1991 Soviet collapse and resultant humanitarian crisis – all this will still be foreign to you.
Springer elevated the seamiest sides of human behaviour to the level of entertainment – the tawdry became the popular. Shamelessness was turned into a saleable, marketable commodity for tv entertainment. His innovation – if it can be dignified with that term – was only possible in a climate conducive to celebrity culture. The latter is a distorted filter through which we perceive ourselves. Adulation morphs into emulation. Who does not want to look as beautiful as Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie?
Celebrities certainly pervade our lives – but are they really our friends, sources of emotional and social support? I think not.