As the World Watches: Media Events are Modern 'Holy Days'
This article originally appeared in Issue# 25
How television's coverage of extraordinary events creates meaning for our lives.
That bright morning in 1961 should have been a normal commuting day. But police monitoring the early morning traffic in California became more and more puzzled by a break in the pattern. Instead of proceeding to work, an ever- growing number of commuters slowed down, pulled off the road and parked. They were listening to the radio.
Since the patrolling officers did not have AM radio, it took them a while to realize the cause of this phenomenon. The bemused drivers were merely joining the workers, housewives and students who were already gathered around television sets in homes, offices, and classrooms all over the country. The first American astronaut was going into space. Ordinary activities were irrelevant. The whole world was watching. The absorbed witnesses to the happenings of that day have been joined since then by the multitudes of mourners at Kennedy's funeral, the half-a-world-away celebrants who got up in the middle of the night to attend Charles and Diana's wedding, and the countrywide citizen-judges of the Watergate hearings.
Journalist Tom Wolfe, who described the astronaut launching in his book The Right Stuff, likened the astronauts to medieval knights who were doing single combat for their society. Since their role appealed to the nation's need for a way to fight the Cold War, their actions and fate assumed an overarching importance that transcended the events themselves.
In fact, this centrality of importance in which television provides a ritual outlet for the whole society is the crucial characteristic of what are often called "media events," or what communications researcher Elihu Katz calls "the high holidays of television." Katz, Director of the Communications Institute at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and Professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, is involved in a systematic study of this phenomenon. He proposes that "media events" are a specifically delimited kind of happening which may be easily distinguished from ordinary news and entertainment by the application of proper criteria. Their study sheds light on the events, ceremonies and values which depend on television to help make life meaningful in our society.
To begin with, true media events are broadcast live, taking full advantage of the excitement inherent in being present when something important occurs. Although they must be preplanned in some sense, they are not set up by the networks and they exist for a higher purpose than hype. That is, they are not publicity-created "pseudo-events."
In some ways 'media events" share a number of the characteristics of news. They are tied to specific events that have a beginning and an end. They depend on a combination of visual transmission and factual commentary. They usually take place in public and are acknowledged as possessing common interest for the society as a whole. And they are extremely dependent on television's often-noted capacity for making the grandiose and complex, intimate and personal.
But unlike the news of the day, media events reach far beyond the day-to-day round of misfortune and circumstance to create compelling sense of occasion that transfixes viewers. Watching them often becomes a communal outlet transformed into a participatory requirement — a kind of sacred obligation (holy day of obligation?) for complete society membership.
As Katz points out, special television happenings are one of the few types of programming that transform TV watching into an occasion instead of a casual everyday experience. People get dressed up and visit each other' homes to celebrate the Superbowl; the whole world watched the moon landings.
But most important and typical about these "media high holidays" — and which goes a long way towards explaining their sacred character — is the sense of heroic participation, conflict and resolution they represent. Like classical tragedy, folk and fairy tales, a real media event nearly always features a heroic man, woman or group whose struggle to bring something of meaning to the society is witnessed directly on the TV screen by the breathless, watching multitudes who are being given the gift.
This reverence is often heightened by the news commentator who drops from the usual attitude of cheerful cynicism into the hushed dramatic tones of a high priest.
Frequently even the chatter of the commercials is absent, as viewers settle back to ponder the important questions: Will things work out as planned? Will something untoward occur to interrupt the resolution provided by the unfolding ceremony? Will our side win? And it's generally very clear from the commentary which side is "ours" as the battle between the forces of light and darkness unfolds before our very eyes. What could be more important? In a sense, every viewer shares in Galahad's quest for the Holy Grail and David's contest with Goliath.
In fact, media holidays celebrate modern quests — the contests (presidential debates, the Superbowl, the World Series), conquests (the Pope in Poland, Watergate, landing on the moon), coronations (the royal wedding, presidential inaugurations) and rites of passage (the Kennedy funeral) that move us as they did our ancestors.
Other examples could be: Nixon's trip to China (a hero defying national law); Sadat in Jerusalem (his decision to go was news; his arrival was a media event); the Olympics. The first, a heroic mission, provides the most classical example of mythical conflict. The second is a heroic state occasion and the third is a more familiar contest, but "one subject to shared and enforceable rules, and with a sense of what there is in common," writes Katz.
Watergate, a continuing national preoccupation for over three years, can serve as another good example, since it had aspects that fell into all of these categories and in effect served as a modern ritual of purification, with the whole nation finally serving as citizen-judges.
The original break-in was news. The Washington Post series featured heroic figures (Woodward and Bernstein) who revealed the hidden truth to a watching world.
The hearings provided an opportunity for leaders like Sam Ervin and other legislators to testify to patriotism and religious values, and Nixon's mea culpa and Ford's inauguration reaffirmed cultural agreement and identity.
Seldom recognized in evaluations of 'the long national nightmare" is its provision of a mediagenic opportunity for affirmation of societal values — an agreement that had been totally lacking in the turbulent decade of the 1960's.
Because media holidays have been viewed formerly as 'journalism writ large,' their effects as shaping rituals and potential societal myths have not been systematically evaluated before. But as Katz and other commentators have cautioned, society can't afford the indiscriminate formation of rituals. Has the spontaneous development of media holidays served us well? Does it reflect, enhance or distort our views and values?
The effect, possibly pernicious, of cameras and microphones on the events themselves has been dealt with by many critics, most notably by Daniel Boorstin in The Image. Writing in the early '60's, he warned against the dangers of "pseudo events."
As elaborations of spontaneous happenings, true media events fortunately resist public relations piggybacking. Worth considering, however, are the layers of additional meanings that are typically added by visuals and commentary. The home viewer gains comfort and an Olympian perspective, with analysis, color and camera angles chosen by others. Viewers have no means of knowing exactly what has been added or left out. On the other hand, the crowd on the spot sees only a small piece of the action, but has the freedom to draw its own conclusions.
As a corollary to this process, consider TV's other shaping role — as a co-planner of the events themselves. For example, in negotiations for the royal wedding, television executives were consulted along with officials of church and state and camera angles determined some parts of the ceremony.
"A lot of people try to persuade television that their event is of historic importance," Katz says. "And television decides which events it thinks will capture the imagination of the people.
'In effect, the event as it actually happens is less important than the event as represented by television. The broadcast is what the mass audience reacts to — not what actually takes place. The actions of the actual participants in the event are also shaped by how that event is presented on television."
Do the events and heroes who star in media rituals make history? Or will they merely he floating pebbles as the flood of impersonal and complex forces carves out the bend in the channel?
With its preference for the individual and personal, journalism — especially broadcasting — may be the last refuge of the "great man" theory of history. turning societal forces into modern Thucididean dramas. Historians may object that history is not event but process, but the average viewer joins the journalist in an instinctive feeling that somebody should be visible and accountable.
In supporting the integrative vision behind media holidays, Katz points out that a sense of participation and reconciliation of conflicts are deep and continuing needs. And as he says, audience response itself can he used to test an event's authenticity.
"When Sadat arrived in Jerusalem, there were very few cynics left who doubted the genuineness of his peace initiative...Sadat and Israel confronted each other as much on television as on the streets. To summarize, media events induce participation and a sense of resolution, change attitudes and provide a feeling for process and the way things work.
All these factors combine to make them a crucial and perhaps irreplaceable avenue of meaning and values transmission in modem society. 'events which testify that the deeds of human beings, especially great ones. still make a difference and arc worth hearing about."
A striking example of this need for meaning occurs when the closed society responds with the purity of denial to an unexpected view of what the rest of the world takes for granted. The Pope's first visit to Poland is a good example. Katz quotes an interviewer offering this assessment of his homilies as seen and heard on the air:
"...words began to fit the reality...of the people who heard them...as if their real semantic value was given back to them… People were realizing that after all they are not powerless, that what will happen… depends somewhat on them, that something of the future is in their hands."
This feeling of power and control, the sense that there is some meaning to human history beyond a ceaseless procession into the dark, is what the best kind of media holiday event is all about.