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TV News Is Theater

 

We can refer to it as “fake news”, we can speak of a “narrative” that pervades news cycles, or use the now quaint word, bias to describe these programs, but the big picture is they are putting on plays for our entertainment or diversion.

A play has characters, a plot and a theme. Characters are protagonists and antagonists, depicting human qualities we admire, aspire to or repel us and evoke disgust.

Themes are ethical and philosophical questions or dilemmas which underscore the interactions between characters and unfolding events.

Generally, characters must be people of power and substance. No matter how much ordinary people might identify with a story about an ordinary man like himself, he’s actually more interested in what happens to people with power. We see evidence of this everywhere. It might be the single remaining reason some countries maintain a royal family, as a focal point for the masses as a personification of their national identity.

In news, the President is King. He can be a cast as a hero or a villain. Obama was a hero, W. Bush was a villain. Trump is cast as super villain of Marvel comic proportions.

Plots are never especially important. Shakespeare recognized this, and we can actually see the arbitrary nature of plot unfold before our eyes with our favorite series Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or The Sopranos. These serials have the luxury of never having to close-out the plot, which is the most difficult aspect of plotting, but as long as the play goes on and holds tension, the audience will not demand a conclusion. All of these stories are written on-the-fly based on real world developments. An actor gets a better role in another project? Have her die of an overdose. Another character proves better than expected, change the story to keep him alive.

In theater, the playwright crafts selected scenes for the audience to view. Of all the events that occur simultaneously in each characters’ life, we will only view a small fraction of his or her experiences. The events we don’t witness are either unimportant to the story’s plot or themes, or the author will provide more information going back in time to inform us of some crucial aspect or to reveal some twist. We can jump around in time as we have with place.

The final element theater needs is an audience. This may sound trite, but it’s an important concept to remember. Theater is a pact between players and audience and there must be an adequate balance. ( Have you ever been to a play that had low attendance? It usually fails no matter how ‘good’ it is)

The audience makes an agreement with the players that they will allow for certain theatrical conventions in order for them to convey a meta-message. This is known as “suspension of disbelief” or more importantly “the willing suspension of disbelief”.

If the play is performed well, the audience, having given the play a kind of license to pretend, becomes transported into these moments similar to a dream. It’s as real as anything to the audience in those moments. The fantasy of the play actually evokes another kind of reality, the emotions of the actors are real, we feel them as clearly as if we were there. We are there in our minds, as in a dream, we aren’t judging- just as we don’t question the occurrences and events we witness when we are conscious in ‘reality’.

In our so-called reality in everyday life, we have with us our mind, consciousness/psyche which has the ability to suspend disbelief and see things as we choose to see them. This idea is explored by Scott Adams “two movies on one screen” idea. Or watch Roshoman.

Thus, our existing list of Dramatis Personae in our preconceptions – the protagonists, anti-heroes, bit players – act, and we interpret motives based on this reference point, drive the plot we write in our own lives.

In television news, they assign roles, develop character(s), interpret motives based on character labels, select scenes to include in order to portray the themes they wish to highlight and lead us through whichever plotline that holds the most tension and drama.

The audience goes to the theater (or watches movies and television) specifically to be deceived by artful players who will use their skills to give them feelings, thrills, or to validate beliefs, or broaden ( or narrow ) perspectives.

Modern television news has co-opted these concepts. The people watching are, for the most part, addicted to TVnewsdrama like a soap opera. They want to be deceived, validated, thrilled, spooked, titillated and alarmed.

These artists in the TV news drama industry will naturally react badly to protesters outside their theater claiming “fake news”. This undermines the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. It’s ludicrous to claim that this attacks our First Amendment. If anything, people should always question and be skeptical of reports. But it certainly is obnoxious when people ruin a dramatic portrayal we invested time, money and consciousness into. That is what really bothers them.

They are losing audience, but more importantly, they are holding on to their most fanatical believers, which is actually driving them to craft ever more fantastical plots and characters to satisfy their psychic needs.

Even the longest-running, most popular shows on Broadway have to close eventually. The cable news drama programs are about where Breaking Bad was on its fourth season. There isn’t anywhere else to go. Time to wrap it up.

Published in Journalism
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There are 26 comments.

  1. Member

    Excellent, @franco. I hope you are right!

    • #1
    • January 10, 2019 at 3:44 am
    • 2 likes
  2. Member

    Really enjoyed this essay, Franco. I like your movie clips too.

    • #2
    • January 10, 2019 at 3:49 am
    • 2 likes
  3. Member

    I have a simple rule of thumb: any interaction you have with a screen that you pay for, and that you typically conduct during your free time, especially at home on the couch or in your comfortable chair, is entertainment. So the reason TV news is theater is because all TV channels – including news channels/programming – is entertainment first and foremost.

    And for the record, Ricochet is also a form of entertainment, for those who take peculiar pleasure in paying to geek out anonymously on politics and life in general.

    • #3
    • January 10, 2019 at 4:43 am
    • 6 likes
  4. Member

    However, I would also add that Fox News is just as much theater as any other TV news outlet. The OP mentions Obama as “king” and Bush/Trump as the villains – same for Fox, just flip the names.

    I also don’t think there’s much hope in this ever changing. There are currently a million and one (or possibly more) entertainment options available to us in our free time. TV news has to compete with all of these, so they will cater to us. And what we want in our free time is an easily-digestible story that confirms our worldview.

    So a) it’s not the media’s fault that news is theater, it’s the fault of our nature, and b) as long as we remain human, TV news will remain theater.

    • #4
    • January 10, 2019 at 4:44 am
    • 7 likes
  5. Member

    Absolutely. The media has no credibility. They create a leftist biased narrative based on leftist moral principles, and anyone opposing them is cast as immoral.

    • #5
    • January 10, 2019 at 5:29 am
    • 1 like
  6. Member
    Franco Post author

    Mendel (View Comment):

    However, I would also add that Fox News is just as much theater as any other TV news outlet. The OP mentions Obama as “king” and Bush/Trump as the villains – same for Fox, just flip the names.

    I also don’t think there’s much hope in this ever changing. There are currently a million and one (or possibly more) entertainment options available to us in our free time. TV news has to compete with all of these, so they will cater to us. And what we want in our free time is an easily-digestible story that confirms our worldview.

    So a) it’s not the media’s fault that news is theater, it’s the fault of our nature, and b) as long as we remain human, TV news will remain theater.

    I didn’t single-out any network and I agree with most of this comment. However I would contend that TV news has changed from biased reporting on events (back in Walter Cronkite days) to full-blown propaganda today, whereby they ignore certain events and overemphasize others, and much airtime is deviated to opinion and commentary, which was not the case in the past. As well, American news media is worse than foreign news( but that’s devolving too).

    I would fault both parties – players and audience, but once the audience stops willingly suspending disbelief, the players lose the stage to a better play.

    • #6
    • January 10, 2019 at 6:15 am
    • 6 likes
  7. Member

    Mendel (View Comment):
    However, I would also add that Fox News is just as much theater as any other TV news outlet. The OP mentions Obama as “king” and Bush/Trump as the villains – same for Fox, just flip the names.

    Fox is not a mirror image of CNN. It may be kinder to the President than any other news outlet, but it’s still infotainment and uses much of the same model. And while the left likes to speak of it as pro-Trump propaganda, it really isn’t. I haven’t considered Fox News “conservative” in a very long time. It may have been at one time, but the best thing I can say about it now is that it plays it down the middle.

    All that aside . . .

    • #7
    • January 10, 2019 at 6:15 am
    • 8 likes
  8. Coolidge

    TV and “paper” news are victims of all the options people have. They can never be faster or provide hotter takes than Twitter. They could focus on depth, but Facebook and Twitter have bored most people of stories, so there is not much money to be made. The only market left that is cheap to produce and draws customers is drama and opinion. The “fake” is that they still claim they are news, when they are nothing more than talk radio.

    • #8
    • January 10, 2019 at 6:19 am
    • 2 likes
  9. Member

    Franco (View Comment):
    However I would contend that TV news has changed from biased reporting on events (back in Walter Cronkite days) to full-blown propaganda today, whereby they ignore certain events and overemphasize others, and much airtime is deviated to opinion and commentary, which was not the case in the past.

    Personally, I’d argue that the “Walter Cronkite” era was much more the exception than the rule. I think the notion that that era somehow represents the historical benchmark is more a reflection of the fact that so many people now alive grew up during that era. But we have plenty of examples of the mainstream outlets being used as propaganda mouthpieces going back for centuries in the US.

    Franco (View Comment):
    As well, American news media is worse than foreign news

    In some cases, yes. Many of the more sober foreign outlets are also state-owned or at least state-subsidized non-commercial entities, which removes much of the need to pander for ratings and specific demographics.

    Franco (View Comment):
    once the audience stops willingly suspending disbelief, the players lose the stage to a better play.

    So in other words, all we have to do is finally overcome human nature and everything will get better? Sounds like a plan.

    • #9
    • January 10, 2019 at 6:22 am
    • 1 like
  10. Member
    Franco Post author

    A side note: 

    The use of chyrons is especially devious as many people get their ‘news’ from them. All the bars, gyms, airports and other public places have the sound off and I see people (including myself) watching – which means reading- these extremely misleading headlines.

    My daughter expressed her disbelief at her generation who make pronouncements about what is happening,what should be done,etc., based on horrifically scant information and knowledge. She doesn’t claim to know, but she does know issues are complicated and she knows how little her friends actually know. 

    • #10
    • January 10, 2019 at 6:25 am
    • 4 likes
  11. Member

    . . . I fully agree with the premise of “news” being entertainment, or rather an ongoing story with heroes and villains, cast largely by the entertainment industry. (Yes, I’ve read Postman.)

    And to go along with that, we, the audience for this ongoing story, have a small role in the writing of it.

    I have long felt that one reason Donald Trump got elected is because a not-insignificant portion of the electorate felt (consciously or unconsciously) that electing Donald Trump made for a more interesting story than electing Hillary Clinton. It was a plot twist nobody saw coming, but everyone (consciously or unconsciously) wanted to see happen just for its entertainment value.

    We think in stories. Stories play a huge part in the development of civilization. Stories are an integral part of being human. They are what separates us from animals — telling them, recalling them, creating a narrative out of nothing more than what we imagine, out of things that never happened.

    And the power of narrative can lead us to act in ways that may not be comprehensible unless you look at it from the view point of “that would make a great story.”

    This, I believe, is a big reason why Donald Trump got elected. It made for a good story.

    • #11
    • January 10, 2019 at 6:25 am
    • 5 likes
  12. Member
    Franco Post author

    Mendel (View Comment):

    Franco (View Comment):
    once the audience stops willingly suspending disbelief, the players lose the stage to a better play.

    So in other words, all we have to do is finally overcome human nature and everything will get better? Sounds like a plan.

    Ha! Good one! 

    No, but we can point out there is such a thing as “fake news” and have people consider the idea that the whole presentation is a facade. Apparently, the media players have been driven out of their minds by this proclamation and they certainly take it seriously.Funny how they go apoplectic over two words from someone who they claim is a clown!

    I believe this Presidency is pulling the veil away and exposing them to more and more people. Had they not been so blatantly partisan and, frankly, guilty of the charge, they would be able to survive and respond better.

    Meanwhile, they are hemorrhaging viewers, and the viewers they manage to maintain are increasingly partisan. People who don’t or can’t think for themselves and are addicted to their fix for the day.

    • #12
    • January 10, 2019 at 6:39 am
    • 2 likes
  13. Coolidge

    I’ve come to think of the news as fishing on TV. Or adult league softball. It doesn’t matter much, it’s mostly just to sell something, it’s not as good as the real thing, and people do it because they can’t do the real thing. We watch or read the news, particularly political news, or opinion, like some folks watch football, or televised dog competitions. It is our sport. We will never be able to pound the ball like a running back, dunk it like Michael Jordan, throw a fastball. But we’ll for darned sure have an opinion on all the people who do!

    • #13
    • January 10, 2019 at 6:52 am
    • 1 like
  14. Member

    Outstanding post. Fascinating perspective. Hard to argue. Even in sentence fragments. Like a magazine ad for an expensive car.

    Sorry. I’m really tired.

    Really – that’s fantastic stuff. Thanks.

    • #14
    • January 10, 2019 at 7:09 am
    • 2 likes
  15. Member
    Franco Post author

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Outstanding post. Fascinating perspective. Hard to argue. Even in sentence fragments. Like a magazine ad for an expensive car.

    Sorry. I’m really tired.

    Really – that’s fantastic stuff. Thanks.

    Thank you!

    • #15
    • January 10, 2019 at 7:46 am
    • 2 likes
  16. Podcaster

    Let’s talk about where this story begins. Unless you’re following in the footsteps of a famous family member, even the hottest of your hotshot reporters start in local television. Here’s a typical help wanted ad from Hearst, one of the nation’s largest media companies:

    XXXX News has an opening for a strong, take-charge producer who knows how to create memorable newscasts. The right candidate will have a track record of being creative, aggressive, have the ability to make decisions and communicate the plan in a clear, concise manner. We expect excellent news judgment and a can-do attitude. Candidates must have a proven track record of winning the big story, breaking news and weather. Candidates must be fast and calm under pressure and able to play well in a room of same-minded pros.

    Job Responsibilities:

    – Selecting, researching and writing content for live newscasts to make the newscast an “experience” for viewers.

    This language is almost universal. Sometimes it demands “compelling storytelling with video.”

    Personally, I have a problem with the basic attitude. Journalism is not necessarily about being “creative” or turning information into an “experience.” This attitude is pervasive in the business and encourages grandstanding, propels the visually exciting over the civically responsible coverage, and tempts reporters into sensationalizing everything.

    In my mercifully brief excursion into local news (and forgive me if you’ve heard this before) I saw a lead producer cheer the death of some poor unknown local woman who’s body was recovered from the Olentangy River in Columbus, Ohio because it meant she “finally” had a decent lead story for that night’s 11pm telecast. A friend of mine based in Phoenix left local news when a producer openly complained because a plane that reported mechanical problems landed safely at Sky Harbor. “Nothing ever happens in this f-ing town!”

    These attitudes, fostered early in their careers, is what propels them for the rest of their professional lives. It’s what leads to CNN’s Malaysia Flight 370 coverage (that New York magazine would contemporaneously refer to as five weeks of “astounding stupidity”) and the networks giving unlimited air time to Donald Trump’s 2016 rallies. (They only thought they were televising a slow motion train wreck that would culminate in Hillary’s glorious victory in November.) Sometimes the hardest part of television news is believing it has lasted as long as it has.

    • #16
    • January 10, 2019 at 8:31 am
    • 7 likes
  17. Member

    The other day Mrs R and I went to the local hospital in preparation for an upcoming surgery. There is a sign on the entrance door saying no weapons are allowed, but when you go inside the waiting rooms there are televisions on the walls showing news programs. Hypocrites.

     

    • #17
    • January 10, 2019 at 8:55 am
    • 8 likes
  18. Member

    Mendel (View Comment):
    Personally, I’d argue that the “Walter Cronkite” era was much more the exception than the rule.

    Not sure whether that’s encouraging or the opposite. In the Cronkite era we were regularly but stealthily lied to and most of us had little idea of it. Today the lies are flagrant, there’s enough information available that we’re at least aware the media lies in preference to reporting facts and observations, and yet the lies seem to be consumed eagerly. 

    I think the American experiment is young enough and the anglosphere’s history dynamic enough that there is no such thing as any historical “rule” describing how the media behaves. 

    • #18
    • January 10, 2019 at 9:13 am
    • 4 likes
  19. Member
    Franco Post author

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    The other day Mrs R and I went to the local hospital in preparation for an upcoming surgery. There is a sign on the entrance door saying no weapons are allowed, but when you go inside the waiting rooms there are televisions on the walls showing news programs. Hypocrites.

     

    And they have scalpels and bone-saws too! Double hypocrites!

    • #19
    • January 10, 2019 at 9:15 am
    • 3 likes
  20. Member

    Plots are never especially important. Shakespeare recognized this, and we can actually see the arbitrary nature of plot unfold before our eyes with our favorite series Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or The Sopranos

    Aristotle was wrong? Who knew?

    But he was speaking of tragedy, not soap-opera…or the endless babbling and mugging show we perform to entertain infants and toddlers, which TV news can also resemble.

    • #20
    • January 10, 2019 at 10:05 am
    • 1 like
  21. Podcaster

    Another development in the decline of journalism in broadcasting is the final demise of “Sweeps” months.

    You remember those. It was the three months of the year Nielsen augmented their electronic ratings system with more than 2 million paper diaries. (There was a fourth, July, that was universally ignored.) The networks rolled out all their big projects, sent expanded advertising co-op dollars to their affiliates, and local news produced 5-part series on whether or not there were lethal products hiding in your bedroom. (IS THERE A KILLER LURKING IN YOUR SOCK DRAWER? Exclusive coverage at 11 on Nitwitness News!)

    Just this last September Nielsen officially put a spike in it. That means every month is sweeps month. A 12-month ratings war that means 9 extra months of sensationalism.

    • #21
    • January 10, 2019 at 10:09 am
    • 4 likes
  22. Member

    Franco (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    The other day Mrs R and I went to the local hospital in preparation for an upcoming surgery. There is a sign on the entrance door saying no weapons are allowed, but when you go inside the waiting rooms there are televisions on the walls showing news programs. Hypocrites.

     

    And they have scalpels and bone-saws too! Double hypocrites!

    And hospital food! Triple hypocrites!

    • #22
    • January 10, 2019 at 10:35 am
    • 3 likes
  23. Member

    Franco: The final element theater needs is an audience. This may sound trite, but it’s an important concept to remember. Theater is a pact between players and audience and there must be an adequate balance. ( Have you ever been to a play that had low attendance? It usually fails no matter how ‘good’ it is)

    Maybe. I always find it far more engaging to see a performance of one of the Bard’s plays (even on the screen) than to read it. On the other hand, sometime back in the early 70’s someone gave me a book of the collected plays of Neil Simon, and I didn’t stop laughing out loud until about two hours after I had read the last page.

    Otherwise, this is a really good post. But “they” will never wrap it up. You have to do it for them, by changing channels or (better yet) switching to Netflix.

    Oh, and speaking of Netflix and Neil Simon, have you noticed how much The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel seems like a Neil Simon play?

    • #23
    • January 10, 2019 at 12:44 pm
    • 2 likes
  24. Member

    Size matters. Many (most?) of us are used to watching a fair amount of network and/or well funded cable network news. And often that is mixed in with “local” network affiliate news in major markets, much of which isn’t all that different from the national stuff. But when you go to smaller markets–preferably much smaller markets–the budget doesn’t seem to be there for “entertainment” gloss. Sure, the graphics aren’t as pretty, the flubs are more prevalent, and the on-camera talent isn’t as pretty. But they don’t mess around with on-air prima donnas who bloviate on how they see events. There’s more “who, what, and when” and less “in my opinion, why.”

    I also find the admittedly conservative One America News (OAN) blissfully free of speculative reporting in their news coverage (excepting a few opinion shows in the evening). They simply don’t spend the money on ponderous graphics and scads of “roundtable discussions” and the coverage is better for it.

    • #24
    • January 10, 2019 at 4:53 pm
    • 4 likes
  25. Member

    Outstanding.

    Thanks, Franco.

    • #25
    • January 10, 2019 at 5:49 pm
    • 3 likes
  26. Coolidge

    At last someone offers me hope about our Talking Heads. I much look forward to seeing a climactic ending to all of the following: Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, Annoying Guy Don Lemon, and above all, Wolf Blitzer. It would involve no actual deaths, but if they had their pants scared off, so much the better.

    So to somehow witness a death free but scary scene like this involving the above:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeLkPEVEF8E

     

    • #26
    • January 12, 2019 at 6:42 pm
    • 2 likes