Monday, June 15, 2015

The "People's Princess", Not

In essence, television is entertainment made into a domestic appliance. 

As such, television “personalities” cannot be, as with entertainers in other media, unique and outrageous. Instead, they are characterized by blandness and inoffensiveness. Their role is simply to be. 

This is attested to, by the fact that when performers in other media become TV “personalities”, their actual talent (singing, dancing, comedy, acting etc.) become secondary, even forgotten entirely. 

When these personalities retire or otherwise disappear from the mass media, they are almost always forgotten in a matter of months. 

To analogize, a particular dish eaten at a restaurant may well be remembered months or even years later, for its scrumptious unfamiliarity. An eatery that serves only bland and conventional foods, is a “greasy spoon”. Public entertainment similarly should lack blandness and convention. 

By moving theatre indoors, the impact of any individual television entertainer became no more significant or durable in viewers’ experience, than is the consumption of a piece of toasted bread with bottled jam. Which is to say, it may be enjoyed in the moment, but who remembers eating a delicious slice of toast after even a day?

I think this explains the disappearance from consciousness of Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales who died in a car wreck in Paris in 1997. 

This event brought shock and sadness throughout the globe. Hundreds of millions of people watched the funeral telecast, which was attended by celebrities and dignitaries from all countries. In the days before the service, crowds in the tens of thousands remained outside Buckingham palace. There were rumblings of discontent amongst these “mourners”, directed at the Royal family generally, and at the news media especially. 

The latter allegedly contributed to the death of the Princess, as it was reported that Diana and her companions were attempting to flee the paparazzi when their vehicle crashed in a Paris tunnel. The grandiose claim that Diana’s tragic passing would hasten the end of the monarchy, became commonplace. Of course, nothing of the sort occurred. It turned out that, in fact, the paparazzi were not in "hot pursuit" of Diana’s car when it crashed. 

If the mass media did not kill her, then, it did indeed create the Princess of Wales. Which is to say, it created the “personality” that was so omnipresent on television, that the death of the real person behind it was enough to apparently stop the business of the world for days at a time. 

In the end, though, Diana was merely a personality. In this, she played the part of bland and inoffensive so perfectly. She became famous — at the age of nineteen — not for any talent or achievement. 

It was simply that Lady Diana won the hand of the heir to the British throne. Never truly beautiful, Diana Spencer was quite sightly nevertheless, and seemed an appropriate person to be queen. 

There is, in any case, a cultural analogy between television “personalities” and the British royal family as figureheads of state. The role of the latter is simply to be, to somehow “embody the nation” (in the Middle Ages, this was a literal thing). 

It is no wonder that in the television age, the “Windsors” became so celebrated, as the medium focuses on being over becoming as a matter of course. 

Again, Diana seemed insubstantial enough to fulfill the role chosen for her. Her initial shyness with being a public figure, only enhanced her status as a creature of television. In spite of her marriage to prince Charles ending (if I may) in a wreck, Diana remained a global celebrity until her death, because of her televisual qualities. It really seemed, when she did die, that Diana was the “people’s princess”, the “queen of our hearts”, as one newspaper headline put it. 

She was not, though. It turned out she was no more important to people than any other mass-produced consumer product. It is the reason why interest in Diana dropped off precipitously in the years after her death. I’m certain that most of what has been written about her, since then, has consisted of conspiracy narratives relating to the circumstances of her death. 

Ah, who cares?

The passing of Diana Spencer was the last major media event, during which the Internet was irrelevant. In 1997 still, electronic mail was the only truly revolutionary medium associated with Internet technology. The World Wide Web at that time, largely consisted of amateur sites devoted to Star Trek, the American civil war and other hobbyist and “fandom” subjects. 

It was, in essence, an enhanced “bulletin-board service”, the local computer networks set up by geeks during the 1980s. It had global reach, but the Internet even in ‘97 was not truly global, given the number of people (probably a large majority at the time) who didn’t even have Internet access. 

The only e-commerce that took place then, too, was for the exchange of pornographic imagery. 

News organizations had not yet treated the web as anything more than an afterthought — if at all. The “paradigm-shifting” services characteristic of the more recent Internet, got going just after Diana’s death: the peer-to-peer file sharing service, Napster, started in 1999, for example. 

Her death was thus the last hurrah of “old media”, the few-to-many transmission of information processed by gatekeepers. 

Upon news of the accident, even before her death was confirmed, all regular networks and cable-news services threw out their scheduled programming and devoted live, ongoing coverage not only to reporting on the accident itself, and the funeral of Diana, but also the many non-events that took place in the days between these two landmarks. 

Such live coverage is paradoxical, at least for commercial television services. Tragedy and its aftermath, attracts big audiences. Yet, ongoing live-coverage of political assassinations, accidental deaths, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and the like is a money-losing proposition for network and cable TV. Not only is it costly in overtime paid for on-air talent and behind the scenes technicians. 

Commercial television services also forego, during extensive live coverage, their only true source of revenue, advertising. TV networks don’t wish to “sully” the sombre attention paid to the tragic event in question, with inappropriately jaunty or upbeat commercial messages. 

Similarly, advertisers are reluctant to have their own products associated with downbeat and dreadful subjects. Thus, live coverage is for commercial television a vast sea of red ink — yet, everyone involved seems highly motivated to undertake this money-pit enterprise. It confirms the assertion of Father Ong, years ago, that the live event is television’s true metier. 

Originally, television broadcasts were all live. In essence, comedy and dramatic programmes of the first decade and more of TV, were simulcasts of stage-plays performed live in front of an audience. Even today, the most highly rated regular television programmes are live events — that is, coverage of sports and other athletic contests. 

As with the stage actor, the actors on live TV — the various “anchors”, “analysts”, pundits, reporters and so on — come into to themselves when performing without a script, doing improv as it were. It is their chance to shine. Yet, coverage of the death of the Princess of Wales, became unintentional self-parody. Diana Spencer was, after all, merely a celebrity — someone famous (as Daniel Boorstin said) for being famous. 

She could no longer even stake symbolic claim to political importance, as heiress of the British throne. Again, though, TV-news services treated her passing in a manner befitting an important world states-woman. There was a telling contrast in the coverage of Diana’s death, with that of another world famous individual, Mother Theresa, which occurred a day or two before or after the Paris crash. An Albanian-born nun, Theresa had for many decades run an orphanage in the poorest parts of Calcutta, India.

Her work has been, posthumously, subject to snarky commentary. But whatever the truth of Mother Theresa, she was noted for actual things she did in the real world. Her death was, however, completely overshadowed by the Diana marathon-coverage. And although everyone seemed united in grief for the passing of the Princess of Wales, the very disproportion in the coverage of her death, as compared to her actual accomplishments, inspired its own dissent in the form of humour. 

I said before that email was the truly revolutionary product of the Internet, circa 1997. It was through this medium that “Diana jokes” began to be passed back and forth. More than a month after the accident, these were documented in a story in the Globe and Mail (national edition of Oct. 7, 1997, page A12). 

Chris Defoe reported that, “So far, the mainstream comedy world has been largely silent on the subject, even as it has dominated the headlines and newscasts around the world. [Chat-show hosts Jay] Leno and [David] Letterman, those two touchstones of comedy consensus, seem to have avoided the subject completely. So have most other "official" comedy voices...” But, Defoe went on, “The first Diana joke appeared on the Internet — that hightech watercooler — within days of the crash, and over the past month more than 100 jokes have been posted, collected and circulated on and off the Net.” They included this one, “Prince Charles was out early the other day when a passerby said, "Morning," Charles said, "No, just walking the dog."” Another went, “What's the difference between a Mercedes and a BMW? Diana would never be caught dead in a BMW.” This sort of “gallows humour” response to hyped-up media coverage of tragic events, was precedent to the accidental death of Diana Spencer. 

More than a decade earlier, with the explosion of the space-shuttle Challenger, jokes quickly began circulating around north America at least, presumably transmitted by long-distance telephone call. These included the new acronym for “NASA”, “Need Another Seven Astronauts”, or “What did Christa McAulliffe [the schoolteacher on the Challenger who was going to be the first civilian aboard a space shuttle] say to her husband before leaving for the flight?: `You feed the dog, I’ll feed the fish.’” (The space craft was launched at Cape Canaveral, and disintegrated several dozen seconds later, either over the Atlantic ocean or the Gulf of Mexico). The loss of the Challenger crew and passenger, like the passing of Diana and her companions, was indeed a tragedy. 

But the response by mass-media was completely over-the-top. As when a mourner at a funeral who screams and sobs uncontrollably for a distantly-related or barely-known departed, observers cannot be help but to roll their eyes and whisper snark into each other’s ears.

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