The Money Shot
Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows
by Laura Grindstaff, Univ. of Chicago Press 2002, 304 pages.
"The Money Shot" by Laura
The producers of daytime TV talk shows must woo wife beaters, drug addicts and other scum as guests. Their reward? Being treated like bottom-feeding slime by a public that laps it up.
By Damien Cave
Sept. 25, 2002 | When considering the worst job on earth -- the least rewarding, most exhausting, evil, cruel and unusual daily punishment ever, the kind of job that would make me want to hammer a meat thermometer into my own temple -- I've always thought of mining. To get paid nearly nothing to spend all day in a dark, hot, malodorous hole, only to die young of silicosis or worse -- no profession, I figured, could possibly prompt as many screams of occupationally inspired terror.
But lo and behold, Laura Grindstaff, a sociology professor at the University of California at Davis, has managed to throw my conclusion into doubt. Her new book, "The Money Shot: Trash, Class and the Making of TV Talk Shows," convincingly makes the case that TV talk-show producers have the worst gig going.
These people spend their days and nights wooing and catering to the most difficult members of society, everyone from drug addicts to wife beaters to the emotionally disturbed. They work crazy long hours, make less money than their prime-time peers, and are generally treated by the public and the guests themselves as the bottom-feeding, slime-oozing slugs of American culture. It's no wonder, Grindstaff argues, that "the emotional labor required of producers in securing emotional displays from guests leaves them wondering two things: how much longer can I do this? And, should I be doing this at all?"
Of course, inspiring sympathy for producers is hardly Grindstaff's primary purpose. She spent more than a year working at two unnamed TV talk shows, one on the trashier end of the spectrum, the other more respected, and her book is a broad ethnographic account of the experience. It's also, she writes, a treatise on the way that daytime talk shows "both challenge and reinscribe long-standing hierarchies between high and low culture, expert and ordinary knowledge, and the ways in which these hierarchies are related to social especially class inequality."
This is all true, but academic goals aside, the book mainly reads like an intelligent insider's account of the sensational sausage factory called daytime TV. It's a credit to Grindstaff's skills as an interviewer, observer and writer that the first impression you come away with is not a dry and professorial one, but rather a personal one. She fosters a sense of empathy with the shame of those who toil in the trenches of trash. Indeed, what sets Grindstaff apart from most media critics who have addressed the genre is her ability to walk the line between stinging critique and enthusiastic rave. She never revels in the stink of daytime TV, nor does she offer a paternalistic indictment (à la William Bennett) or a liberal acquittal (see Barbara Ehrenreich). Instead, she set out to understand rather than to judge, to grasp how producers, guests and experts combine to form thunderous emotional climaxes -- the "money shots" of the title -- every day. Despite some occasionally arid writing, Grindstaff largely succeeds.
She begins by humanizing producers, who do things like insist on dressing guests in provocative clothes because, Grindstaff argues, they are both creators of the genre's sensationalistic focus and slaves to the competitive need for high ratings. From there, Grindstaff moves on to the guests. Their ideas, motivations and flaws are all profiled in anecdotal detail. Why would someone willingly appear on a show whose premise is "Transsexuals Attack!" or "Mom, why did you abuse me?" What possible satisfaction can they get from announcing to the nation that they, say, slept with their sister's husband or can't live without a man? Do they have regrets? Those are just a few of the questions that Grindstaff poses, and the answers turn out to be surprising.
For example, the assumption that guests appear on talk shows simply because they selfishly enjoy the attention, or because they are manipulated into appearing, seems to be without merit. It's not uncommon to find guests who are extremely goal oriented: people like Anitra, a guest on a "Dysfunctional Families" segment of "The Jenny Jones Show," who says she went on the show "because my girlfriend said, 'If you get national attention to your case, maybe your sister will leave you alone'"; or Nancy, a guest on a show about "Abusive Relationships," who figured, "If I was going to be involved in this issue of, uh, battered women's syndrome, then why not? [Daytime talk] would be a good arena for me to get into."
Most people who go on talk shows are also far more media savvy than generally assumed. They often know how they're expected to perform and have no problem complying. They tend to leave feeling no more exploited by producers than anyone else who has had their thoughts turned into a sound bite in a newspaper or TV news story -- and many are hardly ignorant about how their appearance will be perceived by the culture at large. In the words of one woman, a drug addict who agreed to be confronted by her children for a show called "My Mom Needs Help": "I knew that I might be humiliated, but I was pretty excited about going."
If that kind of statement seems strange to us, Grindstaff suggests, it's only because we refuse to admit that media exposure of any kind can bring rewards. For some guests, like Nancy, talk shows offer the chance to "get the word out" on an issue like abusive relationships. For others, an episode of afternoon schlock provides a free vacation to wherever the show is filmed or the chance to confront a relative or friend in an environment where the person can't or won't run away from The Painful Truth.
For every guest who winds up suing a talk show, or worse (in 1996, Warner Bros. was sued for negligence after a gay man on "The Jenny Jones Show" revealed his crush on a co-worker and was later shot by the other man), there are hundreds who say they got what they wanted out of the experience. Some, like Charlotte, who had been duped by a bigamist, even appear on several shows in a row "as a way to turn a bad situation to her advantage," Grindstaff writes.
This is not to say that freaks have been banished from the airwaves. People with serious problems -- such as Casey, a crack-addicted bisexual male prostitute and pimp who appeared on "The Jerry Springer Show" to confront his wayward niece, a prostitute herself -- can always be found on afternoon television on one show or another. And, yes, just as you suspected, some of those guests are faking it. Many of those charlatans, including one who brags to Grindstaff about his ability to get on "all the 3 o'clock shows," manipulate producers whenever they can.
But for the most part "guests who desire television exposure want to leave a mark on the world, however small or fleeting or disdained," Grindstaff writes. And who are we to condemn them for that? When "the desire to leave a mark is surely common to all classes and strata of society," she argues, guests don't deserve to be criticized for living out their dream on daytime TV.
And yet, Grindstaff argues, even if guests deserve more respect, even if the average producer can't be labeled a contemporary Mephistopheles, talk shows shouldn't be declared harmless. Claims that viewers imitate the shows' violence and dysfunction have been greatly exaggerated, Grindstaff writes, but ultimately, "there are serious problems with talk shows." She feels that they simplify and distort reality while taking advantage of society's ills.
As the final third of "The Money Shot" demonstrates, every talk show, from "Oprah" to "Jerry Springer," elevates emotion over information, confrontation over rational debate. Experts are shunted to the side or added as an afterthought, like square intellectual croutons, while guests regularly leave the studios disappointed. Some even end up with emotional, legal or physical scars. Vince, the bigamist who took advantage of Charlotte and several other wives, for example, suffered a string of obscene phone calls from people who saw him on TV, and he remains convinced that he received harsher treatment in court because of his appearance on the show.
The result, according to Grindstaff, is a solidification of class stereotypes. Each show, in varying degrees, reinforces preconceptions of class, encouraging us to think that the poor blather on about their problems, lie, fight, cheat and do drugs, while those in the middle and upper classes know better. Grindstaff seems most bothered (and surprised) by the fact that the producers are unaware "of the role that the genre itself plays in constructing the lower class as something for which it is difficult to feel anything but disdain."
It's a matter of bias. Talk-show staffers associate dramatic confrontation and extreme social problems with their guests, who are described by one producer as "white trash, black trash, Hispanic -- any kind of, like, low-caliber people." And rather than let ordinary people's stories define whether this is in fact the case, they simply reject those who don't fit the stereotype. The thoughtful, the articulate, the calm -- all those members of the lower classes are jettisoned for their hopped-up counterparts. Ratings, not reality, rule.
What Grindstaff tries to emphasize, however, is that talk shows simply reflect societal prejudices. The shows are not the root cause of the dramas played out on their stages. So, while talk shows are imperfect, "there are serious problems with the 'respectable' media too, and even more serious problems with society at large," Grindstaff writes. "It is therefore important not to scapegoat talk shows for the activities and practices common to the media more generally or to use talk shows (or the media more generally) as a way of not talking about society's most pressing social problems."
In other words, talk shows amplify our problems, but they're not nearly as bad as the problems themselves. That may in fact be true; Barbara Ehrenreich and others have also argued that talk shows are not our culture's most egregious evil. Nonetheless, I still think I'd rather be a newspaper reporter than TV talk-show producer. And when faced with the possibility of working in a job that depends on getting people to fight, scream and bare all before the cameras, I might even prefer to be underground -- digging out coal.
Damien Cave is a senior writer for Salon
The Money Shot
Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows
by Laura Grindstaff, Univ. of Chicago Press 2002, 304 pages.
Setting the Stage
"Hello Diana. This is Carrie, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I'm calling in regards to the show you're advertising on the TV there about 'Toxic Relationships.' About people who are always putting you down. Well, I reunited with my biological father back in 1990, and, I don't know, it seems like everything I do just isn't good enough for him. I do a lot for my father; I try to do all the things a good daughter is supposed to do. But he just doesn't—"
At this point the caller began to cry, and the tape beeped, cutting her off before she had time to leave her telephone number. I sighed and adjusted my headphones more comfortably around my ears. The producers would never have phoned her back, anyway; her story wasn't unusual or dramatic enough. She did cry easily, however, and that was in her favor. Transcribing the 800 line was one of my least favorite jobs as an intern. As much as I sympathized with the people who called in—the majority of them women—it was tedious, recording this endless litany of heartache and complaint. Callers rambled on and on, and they never seemed to get to the point. Sighing again, I cued the tape to the next call.
"Hi Diana. I'm calling about the upcoming Mother's Day makeover show—"
I cut her off there and fast-forwarded to the next call. The producers had more than enough potential makeover candidates.
"Hello. My name is Carlos. I'm seventeen years old. You were asking about 'Runaway Gay Teens.' I'm gay, and I went to a club one night, and a man, he, uh, he raped me and one of my friends by gunpoint. And if I would've turned him in, my parents would've found out I'm gay. So I ran away to Orlando and, uh, went into prostitution. And my parents are having a really hard time with it . . . they're really religious and stuff, and I just want to be who I am, and I, I really need to talk to somebody about it. And I would love more than anything to be on your show, Diana. 'Cause you're the best. My telephone number is—"
I was poised to write down the number when suddenly I felt a sharp tap on my right shoulder. I hit the pause button on the tape recorder and turned around.
"Here, the name tags are ready. Run them down to the dressing rooms, and then stay there because the first guests are due to arrive any minute—I'll be along as soon as I can."
The order came from Heidi, the talent coordinator, who was rifling through a stack of consent forms. Her face was flushed and her voice full of tension. Pushing back from the table, I tossed my headphones aside, grabbed my clipboard, and left the bustling production office for Stage 12 on the other side of the studio lot. Outside, the sun was blinding as it bounced off the metal siding of the surrounding buildings, and the ever-present din of construction rose faintly in the distance.
Within minutes I was at the stage, an immense warehouse containing more offices, dressing rooms, a lounge and kitchen area, the "green room," a control booth, editing suites, and a huge set with seating for roughly two hundred audience members. This is where The Diana Show is taped, one of a dozen or so daytime talk shows produced in the United States, and one of two produced at Zenith Studios. At the sight of a stretch limousine parked at the rear entrance, my heart sank: at least one guest had already arrived. I took the stairs two at a time and went inside, greeted by a blast of cold air and the distant shouts of George, the stage manager, who was complaining about the position of the overhead floodlights. A large, dark-haired woman I didn't recognize sat alone on one of the couches in the lounge clutching her purse—one of the guests, very pale, and clearly nervous. The first show today was about childhood sexual abuse, and, on the basis of the script that I photocopied for the producers, I guessed that this was Karen, a young woman repeatedly molested by an uncle.
"You must be Karen, our guest of honor." I smiled warmly and extended my hand, introducing myself as an intern and Heidi's assistant.
I took Karen first to one of the dressing rooms, fixing her name tag to the metal plate on the door just below the gold star, then to the green room, which was equipped with couches, a television monitor, and an assortment of catered foods. By this time Heidi had arrived, along with the two producers for today's show and most of the technical crew and support staff. People rushed back and forth, readying equipment and attending to last-minute details. The studio audience was filing in; I could hear the comedian doing his warm-up routine every time the outer door to the set swung open ("Why is it that, when a man talks dirty to a woman it's sexual harassment, but when a woman talks dirty to a man it's three dollars a minute?"). The remaining guests were also arriving, including an incest survivor, a boy abused by his baby-sitter, a convicted pedophile, and a psychologist/expert. Heidi gave me explicit instructions to keep the pedophile as far from the other guests as possible until taping began to avoid any friction. This proved easy enough, as the man stayed in his dressing room with the door closed until called by the wardrobe personnel to get his hair and makeup done.
While Heidi made the rounds securing written consent from the guests for their participation, the stage manager wired them for sound, and the producers prepared them for key questions that Diana, the host, would ask on the air. The "ordinary" guests who were neither experts nor celebrities always needed a little extra reassurance before going on television for the first time, and, in this particular interaction, the producers made a special effort to position them as experts, too, of a sort—experts on their own personal experience. I knew the routine by heart:
"Just relax; you'll do fine. This is your life, you've lived it, so there's no wrong answers. Just tell it like it is, straight from the heart. Don't hold back on those emotions because this is your big chance to show millions of people you really care about this issue. And don't be shy—this is your show, so if you have something to say, jump right in there. Now, when Diana asks you to describe the first time your husband beat you, what are you going to say?"
Finally, the executive producer, supervising producer, and director appeared backstage at the same time Diana herself emerged from her dressing room. Taping would begin in fifteen minutes. Diana said a few words of welcome to each guest, then went out to greet the audience. I raced back across the lot to the production offices for the third time that afternoon to retrieve a set of photographs that had to be scanned and prepared for use later in the show. The office was just as busy as before since there would be a second taping later in the day and two more tomorrow. I delivered the photos to the graphics department and took my seat in the control booth above the set just as the director started the countdown. The room was cool and dark, illuminated primarily by the double row of television monitors in the far wall above the editing console. The soundboard looked like a miniature city block sprinkled with neon lights. It was my job to answer the phones in the booth so that those working there were not disturbed during the taping. For me, it was the most interesting of all my duties as an intern because I got to witness two performances at once: that of the host and guests onstage and that of the production staff around me.
"Cold open—no music, no applause!" the director shouted. "Three! Two! One! Roll tape!" The camera was tight on the first guest, Karen, a victim of childhood molestation, who spoke of the abuse that she suffered as a child every holiday when her uncle came to visit. Her voice was high and clear, with a faint Southern accent. Diana, the show's host, prodded for more details, and Karen obliged, tears welling up in her big brown eyes. I could feel the tension rise in the control booth; we were simultaneously horrified by her suffering, incredulous that she would discuss it on national television, and elated that she was doing so with such visible emotion—especially with the November ratings sweeps just around the corner. When the woman broke into sobs describing the time her uncle "shared" her with a friend, the look of triumph on the producer's face told me that this show was indeed a "sweeper." The segment ended with the introductory credit sequence accompanied by the trademark Diana music, and then the director cut to a commercial. As soon as the stage manager gave the "clear" signal, the silence in the booth gave way to the buzz of conversation.
When taping resumed a few minutes later, eight-year-old Troy described how his baby-sitter forced him to perform various sex acts over a period of several years, threatening to kill him if he ever told anyone. Troy's mother begged parents to be ever vigilant when trusting the care of their children to others. "What happened to us could happen to you too!" she said, dabbing delicately at the corners of her eyes with a tissue. Because they were African American, Troy and his mother satisfied the show's mandate for "diversity" on the panel. In a different way, so did the next guest to appear, a convicted child molester out of jail on parole. White, well dressed, and in his early thirties, he was, Diana announced, participating in a radical new therapy that brought perpetrators and victims together in direct confrontation.
"What's so radical about that?" the script supervisor sneered from his seat beside the director. "Talk shows have been doing it for years!"
No sooner had the molester taken his seat than audience members, roused by the testimony of the first three guests, began to denounce him as sick and perverted. A short, gray-haired, elderly woman stood up and called him a messenger of the devil. I wondered aloud at the man's decision to appear on the show. The sound technician sitting next to me simply shook his head in disgust—whether at the pedophile, at the show for giving him a platform, or at the behavior of the audience, I couldn't tell. The phone at my elbow rang; I put the caller on hold until the commercial break.
The next guest waiting in the wings was Margaret, the incest survivor. I knew that the two producers for today's topic had disagreed about whether to lead with Margaret or with Karen. Margaret's sexual history was more sensational because she had been raped repeatedly by her father and then again by her first boyfriend, but Karen was more emotional during the preinterview ("fresh" and "raw," as the producers put it) and thus promised a better performance. At the eleventh hour, they decided to use Karen up front to draw the audience in and bring Margaret on later as a success story and role model for other survivors since she now runs a women's political-advocacy organization in San Francisco. Margaret was also, apparently, lesbian, for the host read the following tease off the prompter before breaking to another commercial: "Up next is a woman whose history of sexual abuse by the men in her life caused her to give up on guys altogether! Don't go away!"
This was Margaret's cue to walk onstage. We waited for what seemed like minutes, but she didn't appear in the monitors. Suddenly, the director took off his headset and turned to the supervising producer.
"Bob, we've got problems. That Margaret lady got mad and took off. Just threw down her wireless and took off. Jackie is going crazy down there on the floor; you better see what's going on."
Bob sprang to his feet, disentangling himself from his own headset as he rushed out the door, cursing under his breath. I sat for a few minutes not knowing quite what to do. I turned to the technician. Had this ever happened before? He said no, not to his knowledge, and asked me to pass him the sports section of the paper. I glanced over at the others in the room. The sound man and chyron operator were discussing the show's desperate need for better, high-tech equipment, while the assistant director and script supervisor debated the merits of fake versus real Christmas trees. The director was yelling at somebody on the phone. Taking a chance that the other line wouldn't ring, I slipped away and headed down to the set to see what more I could learn.
The camera operators and various other technical staff had gathered at the edge of the stage. Diana was standing in front facing the audience, explaining that the delay in production was due to a technical problem with the sound system. The producer and associate producer for today's topic were nowhere to be seen, nor was the executive producer or supervising producer. I learned from a stagehand that all four were outside in the parking lot with Margaret. It took them almost an hour to figure out why she was upset and persuade her to return. It seems that, when Margaret heard Diana introduce her as a woman whose history of sexual abuse caused her to "turn gay," she bolted because she felt that the description was silly and untrue. She insisted that the topic of the show was childhood sexual abuse, not lesbianism, and that the matter of her sexual orientation was not open for discussion on the air—she had made that very clear to the producers. At this point the executive producer apologized for the mistake, blaming it on miscommunication between the associate producer, who conducted the original preinterview, and the producer, who wrote the final script. They promised to rewrite Margaret's introduction and tape it again.
Meanwhile, back in the booth, the crew was getting irritable. There was another show after this one, and we were hours behind schedule—after Margaret, there was still the expert psychologist to get through. I knew that it would be quite late before I left the lot. Just as I was picking up the phone to cancel my evening dinner plans, Heidi rang on the other line. She was sending another intern to relieve me in the booth because she wanted my help backstage with the changeover; the guests for the second show were starting to arrive, and we had to clear the dressing rooms for them. Ordinarily, when guests overlapped, we would put the overflow in portable trailers outside, but, because the second show featured "industry people," we couldn't do that. The topic was "Former Child Stars: The High Price of Fame" (back in the production office it was known as "Hollywood Has-Beens"). Heidi was anxious and stressed. Celebrities, even B-grade celebrities willing to appear on a daytime talk show, did not like to wait around. All five guests were former child stars from 1960s television sitcoms, three still eking out a living as actors, the other two having left the industry for jobs in the "real" world. All had been negatively affected by early fame. Overall, the show went smoothly; the producers relied heavily on visual elements such as photographs and old sitcom footage to vary the pace and keep audience members engaged. It was almost 10 p.m. when the last guest was thanked and the last limousine pulled away from Stage 12.
"In every way save one this was a typical tape day at Diana," I wrote in my journal later that night. "The pace backstage was frantic, the tension high." As usual, the first show was more emotionally charged than the second because the host found it too draining to do two "heavy" shows back-to-back. The exception to business as usual was Margaret's rebellion, for, although producers believe that the probability of unforeseen or unexpected events increases when "ordinary" people are onstage, the production of daytime talk shows, including the performances of ordinary people, is remarkably predictable and routine. Most of the time.
The following day, while at lunch with some of the staff, I asked them about the incident with Margaret.
"First of all," said Donna, the producer in charge of the taping, "it's a lot of raw nerves when you have a group of survivors sitting next to a pedophile. It's a time bomb waiting to go." Second, she continued, Margaret had been leery of participating from the very beginning because she recently had a bad experience on another daytime talk show: the producers had led her to believe that the topic was about "turning your life around" when, in fact, they were setting up a confrontation with her homophobic ex-husband.
"So she came in with a major chip on her shoulder," said Donna. "She was expecting some sort of ambush or setup, you know, some sort of confrontation." And who could blame her, Donna concluded, given the garbage that other talk shows are producing and the sleazy way they treat their guests? Everyone at the table nodded their agreement. Diana was considered a "class act" with a "clean" reputation, appealing primarily to middle-class women.
"One of the best things about working at Diana," said Rachel, an associate producer and one of my key informants, "is that I never have to do anything I find personally objectionable." She hesitated for a second and then added, "Well, almost never. I mean, I wouldn't want to work on a really trashy show where the goal was to produce sensational television whatever it took."
Again, heads around the table bobbed up and down. "I was at a show like that for a year," another producer volunteered. "It was the worst year of my life. It was horrible." The consensus was that shows geared toward conflict and confrontation had changed the character of daytime talk for the worse. Whereas talk shows used to tackle serious issues in a more or less dignified manner, now they were more raucous and theatrical, with "sleazy" topics and younger, less-educated guests. That is, whereas talk shows used to be "classy," now they were "trashy." I was to hear this lament again and again in various guises during the season that I interned at Diana. It was pretty much the same lament about daytime talk shows that I read in the newspaper, and I remember thinking to myself (not for the first time) as I walked back to the production offices after lunch that, rather than construct an image of "that kind of show" from the outside, I should go take a look for myself.
About a year later I did just that when I started interning at another talk show that I'll call Randy. Aimed at a younger, more gender-mixed demographic than Diana, Randy made no pretense about being classy. Topics were chosen for their titillating and incendiary qualities and focused primarily on interpersonal conflict. As I heard Randy himself say many times to his staff, "This is a show about relationships and conflict, about the drama of human conflict. This is not a show where you pull out a notebook and take down information." It didn't take me long to understand what he meant and to see how the emphasis on "drama" affected the work behind the scenes in ways both obvious and subtle. My clearest glimpse into the backstage relations between producers and guests came one day when Mark, one of the associate producers whom I had gotten to know, invited me to shadow him during the taping of one of his shows. Mark was an affable, easygoing man in his late twenties. He could use my help, he said, since they were going to simulate a homeless shelter on the set and might need an extra pair of arms to carry props. Titled "Provide or Step Aside!" the show was about women who disapproved of a family member's mate. It featured only one story and one set of guests, which was somewhat unusual since most talk shows, Randy included, tended to stack the panel with multiple stories, each with a different set of guests.
Colleen, a twenty-year-old housewife and mother of two, had called the 800 line because her sixteen-year-old sister, Tina, had recently married a man twice her age and was now living with him in a homeless shelter. Colleen wanted to confront Tina's husband on the air for being an inadequate provider; she also wanted Tina to leave him and go live with their older sister, Sharon. Sharon was to appear on the show with an extra plane ticket—paid for by the show—and an ultimatum: leave the husband, and go live with her, or lose the goodwill of the family. Sharon's presence on the show was to be a surprise because Tina had not seen her in more than a year. In fact, before she was contacted by the producers, Sharon had no idea that Tina was even homeless. For their part, Tina and her husband knew only that this was a show about "homeless couples" trying to make ends meet.
I arrived early at the studio, not wanting to appear ungrateful for this opportunity to help out backstage (assisting producers on the set was not a typical activity for Randy interns). The office manager was circulating a memo that listed the green rooms in use for that day. Below the list was a postscript that stated in bold, block letters: PLEASE DO NOT DISCUSS THE SHOW TOPICS OUT LOUD WITH ANYONE! NO EXCEPTIONS! Mark was still in a meeting, so I joined a small cadre of production assistants—also known as "PAs"—lugging mattresses and bedding from the service elevator to the stage. The floodlights had not yet been turned on, and the temperature was a chilly fifty-two degrees. Whereas the set at Diana was large, with "Town and County" decor, comfortable padded chairs in the audience, and wall-to-wall carpeting, the Randy set was smaller and more sparsely decorated: the backdrop to the stage consisted of plain beige paneling with the word Randy written in large, masculine script across one side, and the space for the audience was filled with metal folding chairs. Overhead, on the catwalk, a member of the crew was tinkering with a temperamental lighting fixture. He was almost invisible, dwarfed by the huge cables and wires that snaked the length of the ceiling.
Heading back to the production office, I fell into step behind a producer and one of her guests from another taping, a show titled "Why Can't We Get Along?" They took the hallway at a fast clip, heels clicking sharply on the linoleum. The guest was a pale young woman in her early twenties wearing a very short skirt and heavy makeup.
"You're the first one on," the producer was saying, "so we're relying on you to make an impact, to make sure viewers out there don't get bored and change the channel—you gotta talk about the stripping right off the bat, OK? Don't take forever to get it out. Say what you came here to say. And, whatever you do, do it big. This is national television, remember, and my ass in on the line."
Mark was just emerging from the executive producer's office. His face was grim, and I knew that this meant a last-minute problem involving one or more of the guests. Last night, Tina and her husband, Andy, were discovered by the police sleeping in their car in a residential neighborhood. Then the couple had been detained at the downtown police station because Andy had refused to respond when questioned about his relationship to the young girl.
"I got some soft money approved from accounting," he told me. "A PA is on her way down there right now to bail them out."
Meanwhile, Colleen, her husband, Ben, and the other sister, Sharon, had arrived and were all waiting together in Green Room 2. Mark and I entered just as the producer, Kelly, was leaving. She handed Mark the guests' legal documentation, which included birth certificates as well as driver's and marriage licenses. Everything checked out, she said, and they had all signed consent forms guaranteeing the authenticity of their identities and stories. Kelly was a slight, dark-skinned woman with a no-nonsense attitude. Mark told me that he liked working with her because it allowed him to play the "good cop" with guests: while she demanded strict compliance and refused to make exceptions or entertain special requests, he was friendly and sympathetic, a division of labor that ultimately made him more influential with particularly "difficult" or demanding guests. This strategy had proved useful only yesterday during the taping of an episode on white supremacy, in which one of the guests, a member of the KKK, picked a fight with a black man sitting in the front row of the audience. The bodyguards intervened, but the guest attacked again as soon as they released him. Because Mark had listened to the KKK guest with a sympathetic ear earlier in the green room and had thus established a personal bond with him, Mark was eventually able to calm him down when no one else could.
I took a seat on one of the couches at the back of the room while Mark turned his attention to Colleen, Ben, and Sharon. They sat around a small table littered with coffee cups and half-eaten bagels, talking among themselves. They seemed pretty relaxed considering that they were about to make their debut on national TV.
"OK you guys, I just want to go over a few things," Mark said. "Nobody is chewing gum, right? Good. Now, when you're out there onstage, be careful not to giggle or fool around during the commercial breaks because it looks strange to the audience if you're crying or angry one minute and happy the next. We don't want people thinking, 'Hey, what's up? Are these guys actors or something?' OK?"
Colleen interrupted him. "Don't you worry. I was mad at Andy before I got here, I'm mad at Andy now, I'll be mad at him during the show, and I'll be mad at him after the show."
Mark said, "OK, good. Now, I know the producer already talked to you about your stories and all, but I just want to go over a couple of points again. The most important thing is that you speak your mind. Show us your feelings. Don't be afraid to take charge, OK?" He stood up and rearranged a couple of chairs in the room to simulate the stage. "Like, for example, Colleen, when you walk onstage and Tina is sitting there, grab her hand, let her know you care, tell her you only want what's best for her. 'Tina, you're only sixteen years old, you're just a baby! What are you doing living with this man in a homeless shelter? You need to be in school. You deserve better than him.'"
Sharon, the older sister, interrupted at that point and said, "Don't call her a baby. She hates that, and she won't listen to you."
Mark replied, "OK, well, you don't have to use those words exactly, but, you know, talk about how she's still young, how she's got her whole life ahead of her, and she's sleeping in a car for god's sake!"
All three guests were from a small town in the Midwest, and neither Colleen nor Ben had ever been on a plane before. Ben, a rather quiet, shy man, was a welder and frequently out of work. He and Colleen have two small children. As for Sharon, she'd left home at a young age and was living on her own in Arizona. As the women chatted, they kept looking over at Mark to see if he was paying attention. Sharon asked when the show would air, lamenting that her unruly red hair would look awful on camera. All of them were wearing dress clothes provided by the show's wardrobe department. I leafed through the few pages of script that Mark had given me—a much less elaborate kind of document than producers at Diana were required to write.
At that point, we were interrupted by a knock on the door. One of the production assistants pulled Mark aside and whispered that the guests we'd been waiting for—Tina and Andy—had arrived and were sequestered in Green Room 1 with the producer. They would be ready for Mark in about ten minutes. Mark excused himself, and I followed him back to the production offices. Earlier in the day, he had done a computer search for facts about homelessness to use during the show but wasn't happy with what he'd found. He asked me if I knew any professors who studied homelessness, and, when I said yes, he told me to get in contact with them while he went to see how things on the set were progressing. I telephoned a friend who quoted me half a dozen or so statistics about homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in the United States. Mark chose three and had the chyron operator in the control booth type them in to the character generator. Later, I was asked to find the number of the National Coalition for the Homeless so that they could flash that on the screen as well. (As it turned out, neither the facts nor the telephone number was used during the taping—although possibly they would be inserted later during the final edit, either along with the credits or as transitions in and out of commercial breaks.)
Mark then went to greet Tina and Andy, the homeless couple. He told them that it was important for them to hold fast to their convictions throughout the show, not to lose their energy or to lose sight of why they were here—to defend themselves and their love for each other.
"Don't let Colleen and Ben get the last word," Mark warned. "You've got a good relationship, and you love one another. That's all that matters, and that's what you have to let everyone know." To Tina he said, "You need to tell Colleen that you're not a baby anymore. Don't be afraid to look her right in the eye. Say, 'Girlfriend, we're sisters, and I love you, but this is my life, and you can't tell me how to live it, so just lay off.'"
Tina gave an uncomfortable laugh. With her soft brown curls and cherubic face, she looked much younger than her sixteen years. "I don't say girlfriend; I don't talk like that," she said.
"Of course, say it in your own way," Mark agreed. "The important thing is not to hold back on your feelings." Addressing them both, he said, "I'm giving you the license to express yourself. Don't be afraid to butt in, interrupt, do whatever it takes to get your point across—don't wait for the host to call on you, and don't let anyone push you around. You are the star of this show."
As the taping drew near, the pace got more frantic. Mark ran a couple of photographs to the graphics department to be scanned into the computer and sent me to his office for the consent form that Tina's parents had signed allowing her to marry Andy before she was of legal age. I then ran to wardrobe for extra clothes to pile in one corner of the stage so that the "shelter" would look more lived-in. On the floor where the front row of the audience would normally be was a park bench strewn with old newspapers and debris. The show began with Randy, the host, sitting on the bench between Tina and Andy.
Colleen, Ben, and Sharon watched from the control room. Mark was there with them in order, in his words, to "keep them pumped up" and to help them identify points to respond to when it was their turn to go out onstage. Both Colleen and Sharon began crying the moment they saw their sister pictured in the monitors. They cursed Andy for marrying a mere child and then failing to provide a home for her.
Colleen took the stage at the beginning of the second segment. As she waited nervously in the wings, the producer came running over and said, "OK, now, this is it, this is the intervention, this is where the intervention begins."
Initially, Colleen was alone onstage with Tina, and then, in the third segment, the producers reintroduced Andy. The two sisters cried a great deal, although I noticed that Colleen stopped long enough to yell periodically at Andy and to check her makeup during every commercial break. Tina wept almost continually throughout the entire taping, her face growing increasingly red and blotchy. She missed her family and her friends, but she loved Andy, she said. When one of the audience members called him a "sicko pedophile," she ran off the set and had to be coaxed back on by Randy himself. The security personnel were clustered in one corner watching the show on a monitor, and some of them were crying too.
Back in the control room, Mark reminded Sharon that she must talk directly to Tina and get to the point. They were running out of time, and, if nothing else, she had to say, "Here's a plane ticket, come home with me." Sharon was very nervous. As she stood waiting in the wings for her cue, she kept wiping the palms of her hands on her skirt. Finally, Randy announced to the audience that there was another family member waiting to speak with Tina: her older sister, Sharon. Sharon then rounded the corner and met Tina's gaze: I would not have thought it possible for the younger girl to sob any harder, but the sight of her older sister produced a fresh flood of tears. Sharon was more quiet and subdued onstage than was Colleen, who was clearly enjoying the spotlight. Toward the end of the segment, the arguing between Colleen and Andy escalated, and the audience, emboldened, taunted Andy with increasingly derogatory comments, but there was no physical confrontation between him and Colleen, and time ran out before Colleen's husband, Ben, could be introduced. Just before the show ended, when everyone was yelling at everyone else and Tina was still sobbing, tears streaming down her face, Randy made her an offer. He said that, if she went to Arizona with her older sister, he would put her up in her own apartment until Andy got back on his feet and was able to provide for her—in the meantime, she would enroll in school. This brought the audience to its feet, everyone clapping and cheering, "Randy! Randy! Randy!" Quite a publicity stunt, I thought, although I did not doubt that he would keep his word.
Backstage immediately after the show, the guests were fairly quiet. They weren't separated in green rooms as before but sat together in a lounge adjacent to the production offices. Tina retreated to an inner changing room, where she continued to sob uncontrollably. Andy attempted to console her. Then things began to heat up again as Colleen joined them, followed by Ben, and pretty soon I heard yelling and the crash of an overturned chair. The cameraman and bodyguard ran in at the same time. The latter threatened Ben with bodily injury unless he behaved himself; the former got it all on tape. Ben retreated meekly to the lounge, and, minutes later, Andy followed, but the three sisters stayed in the changing room, and I could hear Tina crying on and on. Apparently, she was trying to make up her mind what to do—stay with her husband, or go to Arizona with Sharon. Meanwhile, the producer was attempting to herd everyone into limousines so they wouldn't miss their flights; I could tell that she was torn between needing to get everyone out of there and wanting to let the cameraman film the drama. First Tina decided to stay with Andy, then she said she was going with Sharon, then she changed her mind again and chose Andy.
Finally, the whole lot of them were herded down the elevators to the cars waiting outside. The camera was running right up until the elevator doors slid shut. The last thing I overheard, the executive producer told Mark to contact a camera crew in Arizona and put them on standby at the airport there—just in case Tina changed her mind yet again and decided at the last minute to go with Sharon. "Make sure you get somebody who's used a camera before," she snapped. She was a tall, thin woman, with piercing brown eyes and an imposing demeanor. She was used to be being obeyed.
I went back to the production office, my head spinning. I was grateful for my afternoon assignment to the audience department, where the main task was to book the studio audience over the phone when people called to request free tickets. About an hour prior to the second show, Latisha, the audience coordinator, appeared at the door, panic-stricken: several large groups had failed to show up for the taping, and the audience was too "thin." So I grabbed my coat and joined several other interns who had been ordered to give away tickets on the street. Like the others, I found myself instinctively avoiding middle-class businessmen in suits and targeting instead women shoppers and groups of teenagers hanging about. I had the most luck with tourists standing outside the lobby of the nearby Hilton.
It was late in the evening when, exhausted, I finally went home and long after midnight before I finished writing about the day's events.
The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows
©2002, 330 pages, 18 halftones, 4 line drawings
BIG BROTHER - GRANDE FRATELLO
GRAN HERMANO - LOFT STORY
03 Septembre 2002 - TRIBUNE LIBRE
Une zoologie du Loft
Des zoos humains d'autrefois où l'on exposait des sauvages " domestiqués " aux shows télévisés d'aujourd'hui où l'on exhibe la vie des " gens authentiques ", Olivier Razac décortique l'une des machineries efficientes de la société de surveillance. Sous les audaces (ou plutôt les outrances) d'une télé-réalité qui se flatte de confondre acteur et spectateur, il traque les vieilles recettes de la standardisation et du mimétisme social. Entretien...
Vous nous dites que, pour comprendre la télé-réalité, il faut se replonger dans les spectacles zoologiques en vogue au XIXe siècle, et singulièrement aux exhibitions humaines qui y avaient cours. Pourquoi ce détour ? N'est-il pas un peu paradoxal pour rendre compte d'un phénomène de notre époque ?
Olivier Razac. Il est banal de dire que le passé peut éclairer le présent. En l'occurrence, j'utilise l'histoire pour échapper à la myopie que suscitent les émissions de télé-réalité. Je ne veux pas dire que la télé-réalité descend des zoos humains coloniaux, mais qu'elle fonctionne de la même façon, c'est-à-dire comme un spectacle zoologique. Cette comparaison ne viendrait pas à l'esprit sans ces événements passés ou, si c'était le cas ce serait pour formuler une critique moraliste. Or, pour moi, il ne s'agit pas de condamner la télévision actuelle, mais d'en faire une critique radicale, c'est-à-dire de mettre en lumière son fonctionnement et donc des moyens de le déjouer.
"Je rêve d'être interpellé dans la rue, que les gens connaissent mon nom ", expliquait il y a quelques jours dans nos colonnes le candidat à un casting de l'une de ces émissions (Star Academy). Sortir de l'anonymat, c'est donc le rêve de réussite individuelle de notre temps ?
Olivier Razac. En fait, ces candidats ne deviennent pas pleinement célèbres, ils ne se font pas un nom, seulement un prénom. En même temps, la célébrité et l'argent sont évidemment une des carottes de ce genre d'émissions. Mais si l'on prend la télé-réalité au sens large, en incluant (par exemple) des talk-shows comme C'est mon choix ou Ça se discute, on se rend compte que le moteur principal pour les candidats est d'être confirmés médiatiquement dans un rôle, un personnage qu'ils désirent être. Ça tombe bien, puisque les producteurs de l'émission les ont invités pour jouer ce même spécimen. (Par exemple : un individu " old-fashion " qui " refuse que ses enfants le tutoient ".)
Vous remarquez que ces nouvelles vedettes des médias y gagnent bien plus un prénom qu'un nom. C'est une limite ?
Olivier Razac. Oui. Par définition, la télé-réalité exhibe des anonymes, des " gens comme tout le monde ". D'une part, pour que le spectateur puisse s'identifier à ce qu'il voit (et pourquoi pas l'imite ou s'en distingue, ce qui revient au même). D'autre part, parce que si ces individus avaient un nom propre, ils ne se représenteraient qu'eux-mêmes, alors qu'on leur demande d'être les spécimens d'une certaine manière d'être. Ils sont à la fois eux-mêmes et des modèles stéréotypés sur lesquels on colle l'étiquette passe-partout d'un prénom.
Spontanéité, émotion, authenticité sont les maîtres mots de ces spectacles. · ces jeux-là, nous expliquent leurs concepteurs, il n'y a plus de privilégiés de la fortune ou de la culture, tout le monde est enfin à égalité... Ce serait donc le " meilleur " qui gagne ?
Olivier Razac. La télé-réalité représente et relance les hiérarchies sociales. Sa force et son utilité pour le pouvoir sont de les faire apparaître comme naturelles, inscrites dans les corps et les esprits. De plus, elle dilue la violence de la hiérarchisation en la faisant apparaître comme ludique, distrayante. On nous dit qu'après tout ce n'est qu'un jeu. Il nous suffit d'être bons perdants.
La notion même de spectacle implique un metteur en scène, un chorégraphe ou un chef d'orchestre. Pourtant, ici, la mise en scène n'est pas revendiquée - elle est même dissimulée. Comme si le pouvoir du démiurge était d'autant plus exorbitant qu'il reste dans l'ombre ?
Olivier Razac. Pour ce type de spectacle, il est essentiel de prétendre que ce qu'ils montrent est authentique. Le problème n'est pas du tout que ce ne soit pas la " vraie " réalité. Ce que la télé-réalité montre est réel et mis en scène, de même que la " réalité " quotidienne n'est pas " pure " mais hautement contrôlée. Ce qui importe, c'est comment la réalité est mise en scène. Or il est évident que moins le contrôle est visible, plus il peut s'imposer comme quelque chose de vrai et de réel, bref de naturel. Ce qui importe alors, ce n'est pas d'opposer la réalité quotidienne (qui serait naturelle et donc " bonne ") à la réalité factice de la télé-réalité, mais de se rendre compte que ce qu'on appelle la réalité est toujours construit, jamais naturel.
C'est un peu ce que vous développiez dans votre livre précédent (1) : comment les formes les plus sophistiquées de surveillance et de domestication sociales tendent de plus en plus à l'invisible ? Serions-nous donc irrémédiablement condamnés au dressage et au mimétisme social ?
Olivier Razac. Ça, je n'en sais rien. Ou plutôt je répondrai oui. Je crois que toute société fonctionne au dressage (qu'on peut nommer en des termes plus doux, comme socialisation ou intégration, mais ça ne change rien). Ce qui compte, c'est qu'il reste possible pour des individus et des groupes de se défaire au maximum de la domestication sociale. Or la société dans laquelle nous vivons tend à réduire, de plus en plus, ces possibilités.
Vous rejetez une condamnation simplement morale (et d'ailleurs inefficace) de cette télé-réalité, lui opposant la démarche éthique du " Connais-toi toi-même ", d'une réflexion continue sur soi, chère aux premiers philosophes grecs. Face à la domestication, à la standardisation des comportements, le " souci de soi " aurait donc un sens aujourd'hui ?
Olivier Razac. Il a un sens pour ceux que ça intéresse. On peut se trouver très bien à vivre conformément aux besoins du système social. Il n'est pas " mal " de vivre comme un animal domestiqué. En fait, c'est même nécessaire pour être un " citoyen honnête ". Mais, pour ceux qui sentent le besoin de vivre différemment, l'éthique comme " souci de soi " apporte des méthodes concrètes de dégagement de l'opinion et de la coutume. Comme le disait Foucault, " qu'est-ce que la philosophie aujourd'hui si elle n'est pas un travail critique de la pensée sur elle-même ? Et si elle ne consiste pas, au lieu de légitimer ce qu'on sait déjà, à entreprendre de savoir comment et jusqu'où il serait possible de penser autrement ? "
Entretien réalisé part Lucien Degoy
(1) Histoire politique du barbelé, La Fabrique Editions, 2000, 111 pages, 9 euros.
L’Ecran et le Zoo
Auteur: Olivier Razac
Spectacle et domestication,
des expositions coloniales
à «Loft Story», 212 p.
Les «reality shows» sont-ils la version contemporaine de l'exposition des «sauvages» au XIXe siècle? Deux essais posent la question.
Samedi 8 juin 2002
En 1896, une troupe de «nègres» d'Afrique de l'Ouest est exposée sur la place de Plainpalais à Genève. Des exhibitions de ce type ont aussi lieu à Zurich et dans d'autres villes alémaniques. Le phénomène des «zoos humains» connaît à cette époque un grand succès dans toute l'Europe, et même la Suisse, qui n'a pas de colonies, accueille avec intérêt ces «exhibitions de l'exotisme».
Ce scandale a été longtemps effacé de la mémoire collective. Et voilà que deux ouvrages paraissent en même temps pour montrer comment, pendant plus d'un siècle, des millions de spectateurs se sont ébaubis devant la radicale étrangeté de créatures venues des frontières de l'humanité. Le premier, Zoos humains, est un énorme travail collectif, dirigé par une équipe de chercheurs, le second, L'Ecran et le Zoo, est l'œuvre d'un jeune philosophe, Olivier Razac. Tous deux font le lien entre l'exhibition des sauvages dans les grandes expositions du XIXe au début du XXe siècle et celle des «vraies gens» dans les reality shows au début du XXIe.
Un acte symbolique a révélé ces pratiques: tout récemment, la France a rendu officiellement à l'Afrique du Sud les restes de Saartjie Baartman. La Vénus hottentote présentait des traits anthropologiques typiques: énormes fesses, lèvres inférieures pendantes. Ce qui lui a valu d'être exploitée d'abord comme phénomène de foire à Londres et à Paris puis comme prostituée et enfin, à sa mort, en 1815, comme objet de recherches scientifiques puisque Cuvier disséqua son cadavre. Ses organes sexuels et son cerveau conservés dans le formol ainsi que le moulage de son corps sont restés pendant près de deux siècles au Musée de l'homme à Paris, où elle représenta longtemps le missing link, ce chaînon manquant entre l'homme et le singe. Le retour de ses restes s'inscrit dans un mouvement de «réparation» et de prise de (mauvaise) conscience auquel fait écho la révolte des Kali'na de Guyane, quand ils tentent d'interdire l'exposition des portraits de leurs ancêtres, photographiés dans les foires d'Europe par le prince Bonaparte.
L'intérêt scientifique est un des pôles du phénomène des zoos humains. Montrer et étudier l'Autre, le radicalement différent, c'est l'étape qui suit la découverte des animaux exotiques. En 1550, des Indiens Tupi sont présentés au roi de France. Plus tard, le phénomène se développe dans le sillage de la colonisation. Indiens d'Amérique, Lapons, Zoulous, peuples d'Afrique et d'Extrême-Orient sont importés avec les accessoires de leur environnement, plantes, animaux, outils. L'anthropologie établit des hiérarchies fondées sur les caractéristiques physiologiques. Les foules se divertissent de l'étrangeté de ces individus qui exécutent sur contrat des rituels guerriers ou des danses lascives, procurant des frissons de peur et d'excitation.
Les sauvages ont pris la succession des monstres qui faisaient recette dans les foires populaires depuis l'Antiquité. Vers 1840, un organisateur de spectacles new-yorkais, Barnum, donna une dimension industrielle aux freak shows, qui proposaient au public géants, nains, sœurs siamoises et autres phénomènes remplacés plus tard par les «sauvages». Sous le prétexte d'éduquer, d'informer ou de distraire et dans le but premier de réaliser du profit, il s'agissait toujours d'affirmer sa maîtrise et sa supériorité dans un monde angoissant. Maltraités, sous-alimentés, souffrant du climat, les humains importés tombaient malades, mouraient. Des ligues humanitaires protestèrent. Certains groupes cependant devinrent de vrais professionnels, tentant de tirer profit de leur rôle. Ainsi, les revues nègres et autres danses «maquacabres» qui connurent un immense succès dans le Paris des années 20 et séduisirent Paul Morand. Avec le cinéma et la généralisation des voyages, l'intérêt pour l'exotisme de foire déclina pour disparaître presque complètement après-guerre.
Zoos humains offre un panorama très complet de l'évolution, des buts et de la répartition du phénomène en Occident. C'est une mine d'informations. L'essai de Razac est beaucoup plus succinct. L'auteur préfère développer une réflexion philosophique sur le statut de l'Autre quand il est offert en spectacle, enfermé derrière une clôture et exposé continuellement aux regards. Ce qui est le cas des habitants du Loft et des cobayes des reality shows. L'appel au voyeurisme est identique mais le spectacle du même a remplacé l'exotisme. Ceux qu'on exhibe sont ici des volontaires qui espèrent tirer profit de leur passage et construire une carrière, mais même si le psy a remplacé l'anthropologue, le triangle spectateur/«acteur»/ observateur «savant» est toujours le même.
Le Nouvel Observateur
Semaine du jeudi 6 juin 2002 - n°1961 - Livres
Philosophie de «Loft Story»
Le zoo televise
Depuis les reality-shows des années 80 jusqu’à «Loft Story», l’exhibition du banal et la surveillance de l’intime n’ont cessé d’envahir les écrans. Un philosophe, Olivier Razac, s’interroge aujourd’hui sur les enjeux de «la télé-réalité»
Depuis la première
exposition d’une famille lapone en 1874 jusqu’aux exhibitions de villages
africains dans les années 30, les zoos humains déplacèrent dans l’Europe entière
des millions de visiteurs. A cet épisode historique longtemps refoulé, Olivier
Razac, jeune philosophe de 30 ans, trouve aujourd’hui un singulier ersatz
contemporain: la surveillance en temps réel de la peuplade lofteuse,
l’exhibition d’inconnus sur Internet via les webcams, les grandes parades
d’anonymes alignés en rang d’oignon dans «Ça se discute» et autres shows de
boulimiques vomisseurs ou de pseudonymphomanes dans «C’est mon choix». Où l’on
voit qu’il faut décidément croire Marx lorsqu’il affirme que la tragédie s’offre
souvent un come-back historique sous forme de farce pathétique. Brillamment
mené, ce parallèle inattendu entre zoos humains et télé-réalité offre de
profonds aperçus sur le formatage des comportements par la glorification
spectaculaire du vulgum pecus, et une réflexion très originale sur le genre de
domestication sociale opéré par la télévision. Entretien avec l’auteur de
«l’Ecran et le zoo».
Le Nouvel Observateur. –Jusqu’où peut-on sérieusement maintenir une analogie entre les exhibitions humaines de l’Europe coloniale et les émissions de télé-réalité du style «Loft Story»?
Olivier Razac. – Il y a là un même dispositif de pouvoir par le spectaculaire qui m’a semblé très utile pour dépasser les critiques superficielles de la télé-réalité du genre: c’est laid, c’est vulgaire, c’est du voyeurisme, de la télé-surveillance, etc. Dans l’exposition exotique comme dans le zoo de l’Audimat, il y a une même prétention à exhiber des modes de vie certifiés comme authentiques, alors qu’en réalité on produit des types humains utiles à une situation idéologique et politique. A la fin du XIXe siècle, le zoo humain sert à l’évidence les visées colonialistes. En pleine guerre au Dahomey, par exemple, l’exhibition d’indigènes au Jardin d’Acclimatation en 1891 est censée apporter la preuve de leur sauvagerie. En estompant les traits communs avec le spectateur et le contexte culturel qui éclairerait le sens des gestes, on fabrique un autre avec lequel les rapports ne peuvent être que nuls ou guerriers.
Avec les talk-shows ou les émissions du type «Loft Story», on prétend en revanche tendre au public un miroir. Mais le téléspectateur se compare en réalité tout autant à des spécimens de fabrication zoologique. Le «Loft» prétend ainsi fournir une observation in vivo de la jeunesse française, mais à quoi est en fait amené un concurrent, contraint vingt-quatre heures sur vingt-quatre pendant plusieurs mois à être son propre personnage? A renforcer ses comportements aisément identifiables socialement et à estomper les autres, à devenir la caricature de lui-même, l’acteur d’une réalité totalement domestiquée par le spectacle.
N. O. – Et quelle est cette attente idéologique servie par la télé-réalité, comment expliquez-vous la place prise depuis quelques années par ces émissions mettant en scène des anonymes?
O. Razac. – Depuis une vingtaine d’années au moins la montée a été continue, avec une poussée forte des reality-shows au début des années 90 et un développement très impressionnant depuis trois ans des émissions dans la lignée du «Big Brother» hollandais. Je dirais que le vrai basculement a eu lieu quand le documentaire lui-même est devenu divertissement, quand le fait même d’exhiber l’intime et le réel est devenu en soi spectaculaire. A quelle situation idéologique relier ça? Disons que dans les sociétés démocratiques dites avancées, la télé-réalité contribue à solidifier un système normalisé de comportements et d’opinions, sans payer le prix apparent de la violence puisqu’elle montre faussement ce système comme un ordre naturel, rassurant, agréable. C’est du reste ainsi que la conçoivent ceux qui la font.
La productrice Pascale Breugnot a pu ainsi déclarer l’an dernier que «la télé-miroir appartient au passé», qu’il s’agit désormais non plus «de comprendre les comportements mais de les modifier». C’est sans doute encore plus vrai qu’elle ne le croit. Cette télé produit des panoplies sociales face auxquelles le spectateur est sommé de se positionner parce que l’intensification spectaculaire les rend particulièrement attrayantes ou rebutantes. Pour Foucault, le principe moderne de la surveillance sociale était résumé par le modèle panoptique de Bentham, où en théorie un seul peut surveiller une multitude, «voir sans être vu». Avec la télé-réalité, on est passé à un autre stade de contrôle des comportements, plus horizontal et diffus mais tout aussi coercitif. La multitude des spectateurs croit surveiller l’intimité des autres, mais c’est elle qui se sent vue. Par toutes sortes d’astuces ce genre de spectacle l’implique, la remet en cause. Encore un point commun avec le zoo, d’ailleurs: «Les lions ne sont pas esclaves de ceux qui les nourrissent, ce sont ceux-ci leurs esclaves», disait Diogène.
N. O. – Vous insistez beaucoup sur les boucles de comportements stéréotypés qui circulent ainsi entre l’écran et la réalité...
O. Razac. – Ces émissions effectuent en effet un branchement direct et réciproque entre les modes de vie ordinaires et les modes de vie vus à l’écran. Notre corps ne cesse de rejouer des bouts de posture vus à la télé, des bribes de marchandise spectaculaire. Ainsi se forment des boucles fermées de circulation de traits sociaux mimétiques. De plus, ce qui est très frappant, c’est la capacité toujours plus grande de ces spectacles à intégrer les écarts dans la norme, à domestiquer l’extraordinaire comme figure de l’ordre. Prenez une émission comme «Ça se discute». On prétend y «tisser du lien social» tout en exhibant le plus souvent des gens atypiques, des obsessionnels et autres cas sociaux en tout genre. Dans ce système, on voit que le comportement le plus déviant, le plus en rupture, arrive à être réintégré, à servir la machine sociale. D’où le sentiment très fort qu’il n’y a plus de dehors. Sentiment que l’on a aussi lorsqu’on regarde «Loft Story». Rien n’arrive jamais qui dans un premier temps soit totalement inattendu, incompréhensible et que le spectateur doive lui-même affronter. Tout est prémâché, rien ne vient jamais casser la situation spectaculaire.
N. O. –A vous lire, rien ne semble susceptible d’enrayer cette intégration de la réalité par le spectacle au niveau collectif. Il n’y a que le «sauvetage» individuel; pour cela vous proposez de renouer avec l’éthique antique: donc Diogène contre Loana...
O. Razac. – Pour ceux qui refusent la domestication sociale, les cyniques ou les stoïciens offrent en effet des méthodes pratiques! Pour les cyniques, cela veut dire: s’ensauvager. Retrouver des pensées et des gestes qui ébranlent la légitimité de la civilisation. Les gens n’imaginent même plus qu’il y a du dehors, pour eux le dehors c’est le trou noir, la bestialité. Ce que faisait au fond un Diogène c’est une sorte de contre- spectacle du dehors, et cela est plus que jamais nécessaire aujourd’hui. Pour résister à la standardisation des comportements par le spectacle, il faut un travail sur soi de modification continue. Trier les représentations qui arrivent de l’écran pour voir quelle valeur exacte elles ont pour soi. Jouer la décomposition plutôt que le «rôle de composition». Même si ça peut faire sourire, même si ça paraît impossible, l’objectif c’est au fond celui-ci: ne ressembler à rien. «Devenir imperceptible», disait Gilles Deleuze.
Propos recueillis par AUDE LANCELIN
«L’Ecran et le zoo. Spectacle et domestication, des expositions coloniales à Loft Story», par Olivier Razac, Denoël, 212 p., 19 euros.
David Dufresne et François Jost
Le Loft en livres
Ben Laden n’aura pas eu raison de Benjamin Castaldi, le supposé retour du réel n’aura pas entravé l’inexorable marche en avant de la télé-réalité, et la littérature lofteuse maintient donc logiquement ses positions chez les libraires cette saison. Après le remarqué «I Loft You» de Vincent Cespédès l’an dernier, c’est le journaliste David Dufresne, 33 ans, qui publie l’édition augmentée de son recueil d’articles quotidiennement consacrés à «Loft Story» dans «Libération». Lui a-t-on assez reproché: à la déploration, il avait alors préféré l’immersion, jusqu’à devenir selon ses propres dires «le douzième lofteur», à force de scruter seize heures par jour ces encagés volontaires. Relues avec un an de recul, ces chroniques, drôles et fascinées, redonnent tout son exotisme à un monde désormais banalisé, le «monde tout riquiqui, tout naze et tout magique à la fois» de la télé-réalité. Une télé très mal nommée selon François Jost, spécialiste des médias à la Sorbonne nouvelle, qui s’interroge justement sur l’étrange promesse de «toujours plus de réel» contenue dans des émissions se bornant à exhiber de la «vie en conserve» et des conversations artificielles entre individus plus ou moins attardés. Dans un essai intitulé «l’Empire du Loft», il dresse une généalogie originale de ce grand Barnum télévisé qui, depuis «Psyshow» et «l’Amour en danger» jusqu’à «Koh-Lanta» et au «Loft», aura moins contribué à la découverte du réel qu’à transformer la réalité elle-même en jeu insignifiant. Valorisation du profane contre l’expert, glorification du train-train quotidien, éloge de la différence individuelle la plus stupide soit-elle, banalisation ludique de la surveillance sociale, autant de traits communs à une télévision qui a érigé le passage à l’antenne en nouveau droit de l’homme. A. L.
«Toute sortie est définitive. Loft Story autopsie», par David Dufresne, Bayard, 156 p., 13 euros; «l’Empire du Loft», par François Jost, la Dispute, 158 p., 12 euros.