Report from Ringside: The Contender Live Finale

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona

The Contender

The Contender Finale

My colleague Kevin Sandler and I went to Las Vegas, with two of our students, for the live finale of The Contender. We were easily able to buy tickets for the morning bouts — the three fights chosen by fans on the Internet and the Battle for the Bronze for 3rd place. Although we were on-line the moment tickets became available, we could not get into the championship fight and its more star-studded audience. From fans in the queue at Caesars Palace, we learned a strategy for getting hot tickets — call a TicketMaster in another city if the local TicketMaster cannot produce seats. Even without the championship bout, we enjoyed six hours of reality show live finale. The three fan favorite bouts were produced for The Battle for the Bronze was integrated into the televised live finale.

A long-time fight fan sitting near us described how the crowd of 3500 in The Contender‘s arena differed from other boxing events she had seen. There were many more people in attendance and many were not necessarily fight fans, but had come to know the boxers from the series. Family and friends cheered for their hometown guys. For the bronze, chants of “Gomez” and “Jesse” filled the arena, merging until their names were indistinguishable and the sides dissolved.

The live experience was more visceral than the televised or Internet experience, more so than we expected. Walk-in music played as the crowd found seats: “let’s get it started” and more. A warm up performer welcomed us to the show. He enjoined us to have a good time and to show our appreciation for the boxers who have worked so hard to entertain us. Contender contender Jonathon Reid sang the national anthem.

In the most energetic of the three fan favorite bouts (between Ishe Smith and Tony Bonsante), music put us in the television show in a way none of us had expected. In the last round, as the boxers went at each other, the throbbing base line of The Contender theme music underscored the intensity of the punches. When the bell sounded the end of the round, the gladiatorial Contender theme soared as trainers and family gathered in the ring to hear the decision. This visceral sound experience wasn’t repeated for the other bouts, including the Battle for the Bronze that followed immediately.

The arena was small with good sightlines, even from the top of the bleachers. A fogger put haze in the air; beams from the lights cut through the darkness of the black box room. Jumbo screens hung suspended above the ring. A camera on a boom could move close to action in the ring. Remote-operated cameras surveyed the crowd. One camera was firmly fixed on the boxer’s family (wife-mother-father-kids), seated in the first row. Held by operators who sat on stools or knelt ringside, these cameras were positioned to capture close-ups of the family members. Using picture-in-picture, dramatic shots of family emotion were inserted onto the jumbo screens during the fights–at the live show and on television (CLIP). Although not the subject of the camera, producer Mark Burnett and his family sat in the first row, behind the judges’ table.

Drama wrung from family is important to Burnett’s reality shows. Every season of Survivor has a family episode, when visits or messages engender emotional speechlessness from castaways and viewers. In The Contender series, before the boxers enter the ring, they affirm why they fight: “this is for my family.” The series and the live show capitalized on watching the family watch husband-father-son in the ring, getting hurt, inevitable in boxing. One particularly intense moment in the series was when Tony “The Bullet” Bonsante lost the qualifying bout. As he cried out in anguish at his loss, his kids ran up to his corner of the ring. “Daddy’s all right,” he reassured them. At the live show, Tony’s daughter was ringside; an interesting spectacle herself, she gesticulated wildly, arms flailing the air, urging her father onward. The masculinity offered by The Contender is physical power, mental strength, and the warm emotions of the family man.

The family of each boxer in The Contender had its own producer. At the live show, a producer hovered near the family and the family’s camera operator. For some bouts, several children were arrayed along the first row ringside. During one bout, a toddler played with the cables and tried to climb up the side of the ring. An adult (who appeared to be a civilian, not a producer) wrangled the kid to the sidelines. The family’s producer cued family members when it was time for them to climb into the ring to stand with their boxer as the winner was announced. There were rumors that producers told the wives how to dress and how to do their hair. The sister of one boxer’s wife sat near us. She expressed surprised and a firm denial when I asked if her sister had been told what to wear by the producers.

The presence of family appeared to be an effort to humanize the boxers. Perhaps family was a strategy to attract the female demographic that eluded the series. Yet, at the live event in Las Vegas, the audience appeared to be nearly half women. Whether one looks at “family” as emotional manipulation, as an exigency of the television business, or as a convention of television entertainment, it was clear that the production of The Contender cultivated family drama with deliberation.

Some fight fans were of the opinion that kids don’t belong ringside, that family intrudes on the solitary nature of boxing, that boxer and family should be separated for 48 hours before a fight. The boxer needs to concentrate; family interferes with this mental focus. Bicycle race fans know that Lance Armstrong plans to retire to spend more time with his children, but Armstrong’s kids are not positioned along each stage of the Tour de France in sight of the OLN cameras. Maybe sports do not merge comfortably with the need reality television has for family drama.

Family Drama History

Image Credit:
1. The Contender Finale

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Oscar Clips Clips; Audience Insight Dips

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences website describes the Oscars® as the Academy’s most famous and most important activity. With its international telecast to millions, “the Academy Award presentation has enabled [AMPAS] to maintain a varied year-round calendar of programs and events and a wide-ranging educational and cultural agenda.” The famous exhibitionist event supports the less visible work of the Academy. The Oscars ceremony is the public face of the Academy, “the crescendo … when hundreds of millions of cinema lovers glue themselves to their television sets” to peer at the splendor of the movie industry.

The 2005 Oscars tried to make the show more visually interesting and to move it along more quickly (“drive-thru Oscar lane” quipped emcee Chris Rock). To diversify the ceremonial space, some of the presentations were moved off the proscenium into other spaces of the theater. Awards were presented from box seats balcony and, like David Letterman’s audience participation gags, from the aisles of the main floor. The 2005 Oscars telecast was parsimonious and visually inventive in the use of clips, resulting in lost opportunities to educate and delight. Some awards used no clips to illustrate the nominees. For other awards, clips were projected onto the floor at the feet of the nominees, gathered together on the stage. Some clips were squeezed into parabolic shapes along the sides of nominee title cards. These spatial strategies may have provided visual interest and moved the ceremony along, yet the Oscars telecast seemed to conceive of movies as Lina Lamont did in Singin’ in the Rain, bringing joy into the “hum-drum lives” of movie audiences, rather than providing a glimpse into what these film professionals consider quality production. Major exceptions were Art Direction, whose clips transitioned from a charcoal drawing or watercolor into the image’s cinematic twin CLIP – Art Direction and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which illustrated the industry’s commitments to health care and preservation.

An annual example of missed opportunity is the Scientific and Technical Awards, which continued their legendary marginalization at the Oscars. Scarlett Johansson announced the sci-tech awards from a balcony, referring to the “exclusive dinner” (held on Saturday, 12 February) where the awards were given. Although 15 sci-tech awards were presented at the banquet, the Oscars telecast focused on two achievements: the decades long development of the Louma crane and remote system; and the Gordon E. Sawyer Award presented to Takuo Miyagishima “for a lifetime of accomplishments” (of which not one was identified). There were a few shots of the Louma crane in action, but the segment barely hinted at what the Louma crane does, how it does it, why the Academy cares or why the movie-goer should care CLIP – sci-tech. The Oscars might direct interested viewers to a “read more about it” web address, like PBS does.

For the animation short award, the Oscars did not show even one frame from any of the nominated films. We are asked to merely accept the Academy’s word for it, that these films were worthy of nomination. In his winner’s speech, Chris Landruth complimented the Academy for “continuing to support short filmmaking in all its forms. I can’t tell you how cool that is.” While the Oscar categories support short films, the Oscars telecast didn’t show even a hint of why, in its wisdom and expertise, the Academy selected these films for these awards. For the documentary short award, clips were projected onto the floor of the stage, which was divided into large squares. The clips were screened on a surface with black lines drawn across it CLIP – clips on the floor. Big blocks and lines may have provided visual interest but they interfered with the presentation of the clips. Unless we attend a major film festival or have a local art house, audiences won’t have an opportunity to see the shorts. If Oscars would show clips, worldwide audiences might be drawn to the short film and encourage distributors and exhibitors to become more open to all forms of film.

It wasn’t only shorts categories and scientific-technical awards that received short shrift in the clips department. For the editing nominations, clips were positioned along the side of the screen, shaped like a twisting strip of film CLIP – editing. In these distorted images, one could divine that shots were cut together, and perhaps begin to glean the editing art of these particular films. The legible visual information in the segment was reserved for putting a face on the usually invisible editor and the title of the film.

The 2005 Oscar telecast gave some brief time to three set pieces (in memoriam, tribute to Johnny Carson, montage of movie history) and more detailed attention to the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. In the Hersholt presentation, the Academy honored film executive Roger Mayer for his work with the Motion Picture and Television Fund and with film preservation. In the process, the television audience learned that the industry provides charitable health care for film and TV workers in need. The montage illustrated nitrate film degrading into powder and showed split-screen before-and-after examples of restoration CLIP – Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The Hersholt Award segment went deeply behind the scenes and beyond production, to present an industry that cares for its people and its history, an on-going humanitarian commitment that viewers might ask organizations like Wal-Mart to emulate.

In his introduction to Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances, Peter Wollen writes, “an excess of display has the effect of concealing the truth of the society that produces it, providing the viewer with an unending stream of images that might be best understood, not simply as detached from a real world of things, as [Guy] Debord implied, but as working to efface any trace of the symbolic, condemning the viewer to a world in which we can see everything but understand nothing” (p. 9). The annual Oscars show could be an opportunity for film and TV audiences to participate in an enlightening celebration of cinematic arts and sciences, as co-participants in film culture. Even dressed in tux and gown, the Academy could share its professional knowledge and present its expertise rather than limiting the Oscars to the sheen of commercial cinema, glamour and TV entertainment.

Image Credits:
1. Oscars

Jean Hersholt Award Winners
The Motion Picture & Television Fund Homepage

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The Credibility of Reality TV and Its Lineage with other Photographic Arts

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona

Recently, I was asked to comment on the credibility of reality television as compared to the credibility of street photography by artists like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Cindy Sherman. In the “Street Credibility” exhibit, curated by artist Mike Kelley, the photographs are staged, interpretations of people in their lives. Like reality TV, some of the photographs are exploitative and sensational. Thinking about reality TV and street photography lead me to explore the lineage that reality TV shares with other photographic arts. This assumption places reality TV in the company of seemingly strange bedfellows, photographic arts that merge interpretation with real lived existence, such as Italian neorealist film and 1930s US social documentaries. While other photographic arts may draw upon dramatic modes (posed subjects, casting through typage, associational editing), the central factor that affects credibility and separates reality TV from other realist-based photographic arts is “entertainment.”

In their introduction to Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette describe reality TV as “an unabashedly commercial genre united less by aesthetic rules or certainties than by the fusion of popular entertainment with a self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real” (3). Reality TV does not have the same credibility as photography or documentary film, neither as a record of lived existence nor as art. It is television, show business, entertainment. Caption on a magnet found in my used office desk: “Theater is life. Film is art. TV is furniture.” Would there be a bumper sticker with the caption: “kill your photographs” instead of “kill your television?”

The idea of credibility suggests trust and truth, both in the representation and in its interpretation. There is an assumption that the representation faithfully captures its analogue in the world and that the interpretation in the work, even if exploitative, offers valued commentary or social analysis of the subject of the work. The conventions of television entertainment trouble interpretation, reducing the social utility of reality TV when compared to its more respected progenitors that combined fact and fiction, such as street photography, 1930s social documentary and post-WWII neo-realist film.

Photographs are placed in an artistic environment, on a gallery wall or in a coffee table book, positioned for and inviting contemplation and study. In a photograph, there are many layers of intervention by the photographer: the photograph may be posed and is certainly framed; the photographer manipulates the image in the dark room. In the gallery and in books, labels near the photographs may identify the process used to print the image (chemicals and paper) and perhaps the camera that was used. Some gallery exhibits display cameras, which can be massive and heavy, with complex dials and lenses. Does this awareness of a photograph’s construction cause photography to lose credibility? The street photograph retains credibility even though (and because) the photographer selected, framed and interpreted to imbue the image with truth.

In some ways, reality TV and Italian neo-realism are two sides of the same coin. Reality TV does not spring to mind when reading the words of theorist Cesare Zavattini: “neo-realism is a way of seeing reality without prejudice, without conventions coming between it and myself — facing it without preconceptions, looking at it in an honest way — whatever reality is, not just social reality but all that there is within a man” (quoted in Bondanella, 32). Yet, reality TV shares some concerns with neo-realism.

Both prefer improvisation within a structure. Both eschew stars, with their pre-existing meanings, and use typage to generate drama through casting. Neo-realism favors non-professionals or actors who resemble real people (such as a man who shines shoes); ensemble reality TV shows try to bring together an array of personalities and/or social-cultural roles/stereotypes (see L.S. Kim, “Race and Reality … TV” in Flow). Both edit to highlight the drama of decisive moments in the story. Both invite audiences to be moved emotionally by characters (neo-realism) or personalities (reality TV). Neo-realism and reality TV both appear to be forms of what reality TV producer Mark Burnett has labeled “dramality”: drama + reality.

Yet, reality TV gravitates toward the conventions of Hollywood entertainment that neorealist theory critiqued. Neo-realism presented ordinary life and gained authenticity from locations; reality TV creates imaginary situations in locations that are produced and designed for the show’s particular reality genre (the board room, the remote island, the romance, etc.). Rather than interpret a profilmic “life on the street,” reality TV creates its own “life” and its own “street.” Neorealist stories were situated in the aftermath of World War II (a stolen bicycle ruins a man’s chances to work in Bicycle Thieves); the problems of some reality TV shows can seem superficial (the strongbox of fire sinks to the bottom of the sea when a wave capsizes the castaways’ boat on Survivor: Palau). These losses are both decisive moments for their respective stories (Antonio will spend the film searching desperately for transportation that will allow him to work; the castaways will spend upcoming episodes diving to retrieve the strongbox that will allow them to boil drinking water, to be warm, to cook food). There are parallel emotional effects on the characters and dramatic effects on the story.

However, the social utility of these situations are vastly different. The heroes of neo-realism were not heroic figures, but ordinary people dealing with life in the aftermath of World War II. The personalities of reality TV emerge from interactions generated by fabricated environments and situations. The reality is imbedded in story and suspense structures like games (who will stay the course), auditions (simulations and role-playing) and romance (who will win the heart). In neo-realism, life is complex, downbeat, unhappy and maybe tragic. Reality TV enjoys sentimentality, conflict, anxiety, unhappiness, tragedy, victory. Life in the neorealist film will go on after the film’s story has ended. Reality TV shows try for a gripping finale that can be “event television,” a live broadcast so exciting that maybe the audience will watch in real time and not fast-forward through commercials.

Do the conventions of entertainment inevitably cause a loss of credibility and truth in interpretation? In his history of 1930s social documentary, Chuck Wolfe writes, “documentary cinema was valued for its capacity to render dramatic the social trauma of unemployment, labor violence, and the erosion of the American farmland and to offer explanations for these disturbances and disasters” (353). Drama was important to the effort of documentary makers to reach and communicate with audiences. Although they combined drama and reality, 1930s social documentaries and neorealist films did not reach large audiences and were not commercially successful. However, their techniques were picked up by Hollywood and merged with story, stars and entertainment (such as the post-war semi-documentary and film noir). In her analysis of reality-documentary hybrids, Susan Murray explores how reality TV shares aesthetic conventions (such as the hand-held camera) with “high-minded, and if not fully educational, then at least informative” observational documentaries (43). She concludes “the distinctions we make between forms of nonfictional television are … largely contained in the evaluative connotations that insist on separating information from entertainment, liberalism from sensationalism, and public service from commercialism” (54). In this continuum of hybrid photographic arts, the connotations of entertainment-sensationalism-commercialism separate reality TV from 1930s documentary and neo-realism.

To return to the working definition of credibility above, the world that reality TV presents is fabricated (therefore not an analogue). One can understand and take pleasure in the structures of games, auditions and romance and still find reality TV to be a credible (that is, accurate yet entertaining) record of what happened. Reality TV’s interpretation of events may not summon contemplation of lived existence or social analysis. Instead, it goes for emotional identification with the people on the screen and social interactions with other audience members in blogs, websites and around the water cooler. Thus, television can be life, art and also …… furniture.

An earlier draft of this essay explored the necessity of work for Antonio and Bruno v. Nicole and Paris. Henry Jenkins IV pointed out the parallels between losing the bicycle and losing the fire.

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TV Legal Drama Speaks to U.S. Citizens

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry

In the early 1970s, Dirty Harry famously took on the issue of constitutional rights for US citizens suspected of crimes. Clint Eastwood’s cop movie launched the popular narrative enigma that would influence decades of television legal drama: “the fruit of the poisoned tree.” Evidence obtained in an illegal search is considered “poisoned” and not admissible in court. Although relevant to only a small number of cases in real life, in television legal drama “inadmissible evidence” guarantees drama, nurtures performance and invites the TV audience to share in fear, victimization and social injustice caused by the Constitution. Today, constitutional rights have been scaled back through the USA Patriot Act. Adopted 45 days after 9/11, the Patriot Act grants government temporary permission to circumvent the constitutional rights of US citizens in the fight against terrorism. Although it has not (yet) had the TV dramatic reach of the 1960s Miranda decision, the Patriot Act is finding its way into television entertainment.

Television stories about “fruit of the poisoned tree” and the Patriot Act is entertainment that calls upon the verisimilitude of contemporary politics. Television presents constitutional rights through the conventions of entertainment — performance, aesthetics, character interactions. Characters in TV legal drama are inscribed with social meanings. The city cop is working class, beefy and rough; his job to protect and serve is hampered by the rights of citizens. The federal cop is more polished, better educated, better dressed and more powerful. Lawyers and judges are educated legal minds who explain issues to both diegetic characters and the TV audience. Guilty criminals and their lawyers are smug in the knowledge that they can turn the system to their advantage and continue to endanger an innocent public. There is the social subject that Thomas Elsaesser has called, in reference to 1930s Warner Bros. bio-pics, the “civic audience” — the TV audience and our diegetic surrogates, addressed as citizens. “Ripped from today’s headlines,” TV legal drama is more like docudrama than fiction, as the contending forces of constitutional rights and public safety are worked through TV legal drama for the civic audience.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel described Harry Callahan as “Archie Bunker with a gun,” evoking the political and generational divide of the 1960s and 1970s. In Miranda: The Story of America’s Right to Remain Silent, attorney Gary L. Stuart situates the Miranda decision and its underlying racial and class assumptions in the social context of the US in the 1960s. Stuart argues that prior to Miranda, Americans of a particular class would have understood that they have the right to remain silent, whether inside the courtroom or in a police interrogation room. For white, middle-class and educated citizens, this right did not have to be articulated. Stuart shows how social change in the United States after World War II began to “question some deep-rooted assumptions about race, about gender, and about law.” He identifies two primary areas for change: (1) the desire for greater social and economic equity, seen in the movements for civil rights and women’s rights; and (2) the availability of higher education for children of the lower- and middle-classes.

These children went to college and entered professions that were traditionally the province of the upper class — in particular law and academe. Now empowered, these educated formerly lower-class citizens pushed for egalitarian reforms. Among these reforms was the right to an attorney. The state assumed responsibility for providing legal counsel for citizens who could not afford it. However, the suspect had to invoke the right to counsel (Stuart, xv-xvi). Before Miranda, the state was not obligated to inform the suspect that s/he had the right to counsel.

In March 1963, Phoenix police arrested a young, poor and uneducated Hispanic man, Ernesto Miranda, who confessed to the crime during interrogation. Stuart explains the psychological importance of confession in police procedure: “confess, and all will be forgiven — that is what the police interrogator conveys to the suspect … in truth [,] the suspect will be forgiven by the cop … for the higher authority, however … the wrongdoer must pay for what he did” (Stuart xv). Ernesto Miranda’s conviction rested almost entirely on his self-incriminating confession. Stuart describes Miranda as “an uneducated, ethnically disenfranchised citizen with virtually no voice to defend himself.” Miranda was guilty, but the Supreme Court found that “the law must step forward … to provide him with legal protection to which all innocent American citizens can lay claim” (xvii). Thus, constitutional protections apply equally to the innocent and the guilty, to the educated and the uneducated.

The Miranda decision was a safeguard against police abuse and coerced confessions. Stuart explains its impact on the conduct of criminal investigations: “police interrogation techniques were developed [and] specifically designed to induce suspects into unknowingly giving up their Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights” (xviii) [Fifth is right to remain silent; Sixth is right to representation]. The Miranda decision affected police procedure and the conduct of investigations. Scenes of confession, interrogation, and evidence lie at the heart of television legal drama. Educated, articulate legal minds are positioned against frustrated working cops who have to revise their procedures in order to obey the law. This opposition grows directly out of the post-WWII social context of the Miranda decision that Stuart describes: thinker v. doer, mind v. body, legal thought v. life on the street, Archie Bunker v. Meathead.

In Dirty Harry, the Constitution protects the rights of a particularly heinous criminal, Scorpio, a serial killer-rapist. In the Kezar Stadium sequence, Harry tortures Scorpio during the arrest. Through editing and shot scale, this scene establishes the parallel intensity and psychotic states of the cop and the criminal. Out in the street, Harry has the gaze of power and ability to protect public safety. Then, Harry is called into the DA’s office where he and the civic audience learn that Scorpio will go free. In the DA’s office, Harry does not relinquish the gaze of power he had at Kezar Stadium, but he tinges it with insubordination and frustration. The film argues that cops cannot work effectively within the procedures required of the police by law.

Clip: Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry distinguishes between justice and law. The law states that the rights of the accused are more important than the criminal’s obvious guilt. Justice tells us the law is too lenient; it’s crazy. The cop enunciates the dangers to public safety: “who speaks for her?” The lawyers make speeches, reasoned and dispassionate readings that explain the law in arcane ways, as if the law is based in knowledge that the untutored person cannot fully access. The cop’s words and gestures are succinct. It’s the famous Eastwood performance.

Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue

Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue

Twenty years later in 1993, NYPD Blue burst onto television screens as R-rated television, for language, sexual situations and nudity. The first scene of the first episode of NYPD Blue takes on constitutional rights with the now-familiar cast of characters: cops, DA, smug perpetrators and their lawyer, and the civic audience. In 1993, we don’t need lengthy speeches to explain constitutional provisions; “inadmissible evidence” has become a convention of television legal drama and police procedure. However, what we do need (as viewers of this new and startling television series) is a position on Andy Sipowicz, the cop who violates rights. This is important for the stability of the series and to establish sympathy for its continuing characters. Andy is another “Archie Bunker with a gun,” but his physical presence is different from Harry’s. Andy is inarticulate and beefy; he squirms on the stand. Andy is the comic side of Archie Bunker’s working-class conservatism.

Like Harry, Andy is entertainment. NYPD Blue starts with energy, in the courtroom and in its aftermath. The scene and the show move quickly. Andy’s partner, John Kelly (David Caruso) provides us as to how the civic audience could perceive Andy. Kelly laughs and enjoys watching Sipowicz on the stand. Andy is not a guy you love to hate; he’s a guy you love to like.

Clip: NYPD Blue

Eastwood’s subtle Dirty Harry performance (gestures, eyebrows, curling lips, squinting eyes) becomes in NYPD Blue the broader gestures of Andy’s bull-in-the-china-shop and his verbal assault on the District Attorney. NYPD Blue aligns entertainment (action, shocking sexual language and gesture, visceral frustration) with the working class cop. There is energy in Dennis Franz’s performance and the show’s editing. We need no thoughtful elaborate speeches to present the issues of rights. NYPD Blue‘s first scene invites the TV audience to be entertained and enjoy the characters even as the civic audience watches as criminals go free.

Fast forward to today, to the Patriot Act on TV legal drama. Enunciation and performance have shifted. The cop is federal, an enforcer with the sure gaze of power. Rights and privacy stand in the way of public safety. In the “fruit of the poisoned tree” scenario, the educated professional represents the law that frustrates the police. In the Patriot Act scenario, the educated professional surrenders to the war on terrorism. The Patriot Act is not enunciated with antic energy or the entertainment value of cops working against the system. The tone of performance is different. It’s dire and serious. Two recent examples are Without a Trace and The 4400.

In Without a Trace, the FBI seeks evidence that will help them track a missing child, taken by a pedophile. Agents visit the office of a social worker who protects the privacy of her clients. The agent uses the Patriot Act instead of a search warrant. The time to obtain a warrant would get in the way of the investigation, slow it down. Without a Trace uses a narrative and stylistic device to establish the importance of time. As hours pass, the likelihood of finding the missing person diminishes quickly. Thus, urgency and suspense derive from both narrative and verisimilar motivations. Pressured by time, the young affable agent exerts his power with friendliness. The social worker succumbs immediately. She recognizes that patriotism and terrorism have overcome constitutional protections of privacy. Even though she surrenders willingly, the narrative exacts a punishment. The pedophile whose rights she was protecting has kidnapped her child.

Clip: Without a Trace

The Patriot Act in The 4400 is not as friendly. In this limited run series about people who were taken by aliens, 4400 are returned to earth in a mass landing. Homeland Security is involved in the investigation and decisions about how to handle these former captives. The patriarchal voice of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security suppress investigative journalism in the interest of national security and public safety. The local chief of Homeland Security advises television news producers to stop covering the story. In a visual face off, the power of Home Sec meets the weak TV news producer.

Clip: The 4400

Cast of Without a Trace

Cast of Without a Trace

Some TV legal drama interpolates the civic audience not as powerless onlookers but with invitations to think. Here, public safety derives from principles and rights, not from enforcement. The courtroom is a venue to present civic lessons. The courtroom drama suspends verisimilitude to explore issues. Compelling speeches, well-delivered, combine intellectual and emotional aspects of the law, using the pathos of melodrama to describe issues and our stakes in them. There are numerous examples. On Boston Legal, Rev. Al Sharpton walks into a courtroom and makes a speech about civil rights. He is not a character in the drama; he appears as the Rev. Al Sharpton, activist. Although the judge admonishes Sharpton that he has no standing to address the court, Sharpton delivers his speech anyway.

Clip: Boston Legal

The Practice takes on the Patriot Act provision that allows government to limit political protest to a “free speech zone.” On Law and Order, an Iraqi-American woman has killed a female US soldier who tortured her brother at Abu Graib. In the courtroom, the attorneys explore whether a US citizen can be treated as a prisoner of war.

Constitutional rights and public safety are contending forces in TV legal drama. When the genre stabilizes around police procedure, the tendency is to stress the dangers that rights present to public safety. When the genre stabilizes around federal authority, cops have more formal power. In the courtroom, smart attorneys interpret the law and present positions. The constitution provides verisimilitude as the principles of US democracy play out week after week in various guises. In all of its iterations, TV legal drama has a didactic function that is fundamental to the genre. For the last word, let’s turn to Barry Levinson (Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz). He produced and played a judge in the short-lived 2004 series, The Jury. Each episode of this show was like Twelve Angry Men, but without the central heroic character. The Jury followed the deliberations of ordinary people as they reviewed evidence and came to an opinion about a case. In an ironic moment, the judge/producer vents his frustration with a jury that wants a mistrial and blames television.

Clip: The Jury

Works Cited

Thomas Elsaesser, “Film History as Social History: The Dieterle/Warner Brothers Bio-pic,” Wide Angle 8:2 (1986).

Gary L. Stuart, Miranda: The Story of America’s Right to Remain Silent. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2004.

Image Credits:

1. Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry

2. Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue

3. Cast of Without a Trace

Links of Interest:
USA Patriot Act
Miranda Rights
Department of Homeland Security
Dirty Harry
NYPD Blue official site
Without a Trace official site
The 4400 official site
Boston Legal official site
The Jury website

Please feel free to comment.

Casting Shirley Partridge: The Reality TV Audience as Talent Scout

by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona

Reality television is developing a new force on the creative side of television production as the TV audience joins television executives in the creation of entertainment programming. Bridges between entertainment and audience have always been fundamental to show business, and reality TV is taking audience participation to new heights. The reality TV watcher, sitting at home and unencumbered by the immediate proximity of global corporate economics and network politics, is invited to observe auditions and act as talent scout in the development of their own entertainment. Is the TV audience, once conceived of as passive consumer of entertainment and advertising, becoming more active and enfranchised in the actual production of programming?

Reality TV has already broken down the distance between audience and performer. Reality TV players (“player” here taken to mean both game player and stage performer) are different from movie and TV stars. John Ellis used a useful distinction to describe the appeal of the movie star: s/he is both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. Stars are like us and yet they are different from us. We can recognize ourselves in the star and the characters the star plays, yet we also appreciate their exceptional qualities. The reality TV player is familiar, more ordinary than extraordinary. Trista & Ryan and Boston Rob & Amber may be fairy-tale romances, but they are also as familiar as the initials of high school sweethearts spray painted on a town’s water tower.

Reality TV players may be ordinary and familiar people, but reality game shows cast personalities in the hope that the mix will engender drama and interest. Reality casting can generate critique of social categories and assumptions. Survivor‘s staff psychologist has identified social types (one type for each of the players on a Survivor season) and described the anticipated dramatic outcomes of these types. While the reality player may be cast as a social type, s/he is not simply a fixed and predictable stereotype. Some reality players come to their games with an understanding of how they embody social types. In the confessionals, these players explain how erroneous assumptions about type can work in their favor in the game. “I may seem weak, but I’m strong and smart. The others will underestimate this good ol’ boy, this petite young woman.” Rather than confirming types, these players ask the audience to recognize the types that they embody and to disengage preconceptions about stereotypes.

In its striving for some mix of racial/ethnic/sexual/gender diversity, reality casting can reveal fundamental barriers that reverberate through US life, culture and opportunity. On The Apprentice, African American women players (Omarosa in the first season and Stacey J in the second) seem to not fit comfortably in the show’s business culture (these women seem to provide too much drama). Romance reality shows may occasionally explore the ordinariness of men players (such as Average Joe), but women players seem to be subject to more restricted notions of feminine attractiveness.

In reality shows that are cast by agents, the selection process has become legendary. Nationwide, thousands of applicants (sometimes hundreds of thousands) are winnowed down to numbers that can be managed by the program’s production team. The final mix of reality TV players are the dramatis personae, characters and personalities that are designed for the show just as writers and producers design characters for sitcoms and episodic dramas. Reality show DVDs and the reunion episodes present clips from the audition tapes of the finalists and take us “behind the scenes” of casting, for a glimpse of the performances that won the player the coveted role as castaway.

In reality talent shows, professional casting judgment is made more open and visible. These shows may play a didactic role in the circulation of popular knowledge about entertainment. Whether opinion is rendered caustically or gently, professional judges share their views with the TV watcher. The judges “teach” as they ensure that players have a requisite level of expertise and qualities for the entertainment genre. In America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks and a panel of fashion industry experts assess performance and explain the expectations for a “top model.” ANTM showcases the hard work (get up early, be ready, don’t be a diva) and skills (posing, make-up) as well as the body type that undergird this glamorous profession. There is no popular vote because what matters to ANTM is the judgment of the professionals. “Top models” are extraordinary, not ordinary.

Some reality talent shows cast the TV audience as a creative partner in the discovery of talent, calling on the audience’s experiential history with entertainment (sitcom, pop music, country music). These shows invite TV viewers to understand and to join in the “occupational ideologies” of the creative team, to become aware of the judgments that A&R or casting directors or talent agents might bring to casting decisions. American Idol and Nashville Star are competitions that end in the promise of a chance for a show business career, entry into an arena that would otherwise be inaccessible to most of the hopefuls. These shows have an interchange between a panel of entertainment professionals who make a public assessment of performance and the popular vote. The audience voters may be expressing their desires for what they would like to see in entertainment or maybe they are culture jamming, subverting entertainment by voting for the least likely entertainer or the underdog. American Idol and Nashville Star are talent shows, looking for pop singers.

In Search of the Partridge Family takes it up a notch, inviting “America” to help cast the Partridge Family for a new series on VH-1. Three roles in the sitcom (two child actors and an established character actor to play the lynchpin role of the family’s manager) were cast by professionals. The TV audience participates in casting performers who can sing pop songs, act in a sitcom, and re-inhabit the roles of four Partridges: Shirley, Keith, Laurie and Danny. For each one of these, auditions in four cities (Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Orlando, New York) generated eight hopefuls and a televised competition that combines professional judges and popular votes. The four show business judges are a record producer, a casting director, a music industry executive and an executive producer of In Search of the Partridge Family. Unlike American Idol and Nashville Star, the judges of In Search of the Partridge Family do not share their assessments with the TV audience. Nonetheless, In Search of the Partridge Family makes visible some of the processes that go into the production of entertainment television.

A week of rehearsals, singing and acting lessons, wardrobe and hair is presented in montage. Called “Boot Camp,” this process starts the visual transformation of the players from ordinary to extraordinary. However, despite their more polished performances, trendier haircuts and stage clothes, the players remain on the ordinary side of the continuum. The judges eliminate 3 of the 8. After a singing competition, the judges eliminate two more. Now, the field effectively narrowed to three very similar possibilities for the Partridge family character, the TV audience is invited to participate. The last three players perform a scene taken literally from the 1970s show. They stand before a green screen, interacting with the 1970s characters. In a secret combination of TV audience votes and judges’ opinions, two finalists are selected. In “The Battle of the Finalists,” the TV watchers make the final selection, voting by phone or Internet.

As the field of eight is narrowed to two, the TV audience gets to know the players as familiar and ordinary people. In “The Battle of the Shirley Partridges” episode of In Search of the Partridge Family, the players introduced themselves with sound bites that explained how their personal attributes match those of Shirley Partridge: I’m a mom; I used to be a rock singer and now I’m a mom; I’m organized; I can learn to drive a bus. The players present the sense that being myself is the same as being the character. Their personal attributes will allow them to deliver this character. In the method acting of reality TV, you don’t have to reach into yourself for an experience or an emotion that helps you understand and deliver the character. You are the character and the character is you, in your ordinariness. Yet, the bottom line will be the need that profitable entertainment has for the extraordinary–when the ordinary and likeable person has to deliver the character through photogenie and sustained performance.

The women vying for the role of Shirley are very different from Shirley Jones, the actress who played the character on TV in the 1970s. Jones was an experienced performer with the attributes of the perky TV sitcom mom. She starred in musicals (Oklahoma 1955 and Carousel 1956) and received the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as a prostitute in Elmer Gantry (1960). After working on stage and in film, television and nightclubs, Jones and stepson David Cassidy formed the nucleus of The Partridge Family (ABC, 1970-1974). The reality show amateurs offer themselves not as trained and experienced performers, but as closer and truer embodiments of Shirley Partridge. The contestants situate their performances in “being” more than in “performing.” The Shirley Partridge of the 1970s might have been an extraordinary TV mom, one who formed a touring pop band with her kids. In today’s reality talent show, Shirley Partridge is a character who connects with real moms. Or perhaps, over three decades, moms of the 21st century have become more like Shirley Partridge.

America’s Next Top Model/UPN
Reality Television forum
Reality TV information
Race, class, and gender in media
The Partridge Family

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