The Medium is the Message

Tomorrow night Hope Solo competes to get in to the finals of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. There are four dancers left and three will advance. Two of the contestants, Ricki Lake and J R Martinez, are strong favorites if not shoo-ins. If things play to form either Hope or Rob Kardashian will miss the cut. I don’t pretend to understand dance and its judging enough to opine who is the better of the two. The second component of survival is the fan voting and that is kept under wraps. So handicapping the contest is not what this is about.

What I am feeling is that it may be time for Hope to go because her work is finished. I don’t think an athlete like her belongs in a reality TV series, because it can harm her competitive instincts. Marshall McLuhan famously observed that “the medium is the message” and reality television is an insidious example of a medium that shapes our behavior.
Whether discussing DWTS or any of television’s other similar elimination-based weekly contests like Top Chef, Project Runway or American Idol, the medium subtly reinforces a mindset of passive behavior and compliance to authority. This is what intrigues its viewers because we identify with the contestants. We don’t know whether what we do is good and we abdicate that assessment to people who we authorize to judge us, while simultaneously judging the judges from a position of powerlessness.

McLuhan observed “The medium is the message” because it is the “medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” In contests like DWTS, everyone comes into an established program where they are given rules they must follow. The hosts serve as authority figures are experts and control everything: the sequence of competition, how the rules will vary from week to week, and who stays or goes. They deal with bad behavior and unusual circumstances. The contestants are dependent on the judges’ good will and approval, even to the point of being unable to assess their own skill and talent. They are powerless and reliant on the institution of the game for their continued existence.

On DWTS you wait for judges to tell you if you were good.

While we watch this entertainment are we also having our behavior influenced by the unspoken messages in the shows? McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content (e.g., the dancing), to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. As society’s values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of.”

These contests are subtly reinforcing the institutionalization of American culture. It sets

Here Hope doesn't need a third party to tell her whether she's done well.

the rules of engagement. Step one is getting into an institution, in this case a game. For the viewers, it can be a civil service job. Step two is to adapt your behavior to the game. Learn the rules and compete as you are told. Step three is to submit fully to the authority of the institution and its representatives and spend your energy attempting to remain. Accept the judgment of the members of the institution as fact. Understand that you are kept on at the pleasure of the institution and its officers; it supports you, feeds and lodges you, and you only continue from week to week by successfully out maneuvering your fellow contestants (or co-workers).

What sort of political system describes life in the reality competition? Well Wikipedia has this to say: “Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a political system where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible. Totalitarian regimes stay in political power through an all-encompassing propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that is often marked by personality cultism, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of speech, mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror.”
Look up personality cultism and it says “an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise” Doesn’t that describe Tom Colicchio? And if the reality program is in fact a totalitarian system that contestants willingly submit themselves to, the most dangerous thing one can do is criticize the state.

That is what struck me when I saw Hope’s trainer, Maks Chmerkovskiy, argue iconoclastically with the judges. To argue is to point out flaws in the authority figure. He also stated that he had his own opinions on how their scores should look, implying that the knowledge is not limited to the judges themselves. The only thing left for him to do is throw a hammer through the screen.

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One Response to The Medium is the Message

  1. abroshar says:

    Nancy Franklin (outgoing TV writer for The New Yorker) said of The Hills: “I think people watch it mostly to figure out why they’re watching it.” At the time I thought: THAT explains our relationship to reality TV.

    What you bring up here takes that idea a lot further. Are we really watching to take our own measure, to literally become judges ourselves?

    Blows my mind.

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