Pop culture created the "celebrity," which has been defined as people who are famous for being famous. Movie stars, musicians, and athletes have the wealth and fame that we little people look up to. Reality TV has cashed in by giving "ordinary people"-and ordinary people who identify with them-a chance to break into this rarified world and earn at least 15 minutes of such fame.
Donald Trump used to be just another celebrity, known for his wealth, high-profile divorce, and penchant for dating supermodels. But on The Apprentice, we saw an experienced, savvy businessman who actually made his fortune. Unlike most reality shows-which are really fantasy shows-The Apprentice focused not on instant success but on what it takes to become successful.
The show followed a group of ambitious young adults auditioning for a job in Mr. Trump's company. Every week they were given different business tasks and projects, whereupon Mr. Trump would evaluate their performance and fire one of them, till only one was left standing. These tasks required teamwork, leadership, ingenuity, and drive. Character flaws, egotistical attitudes, and obnoxious behavior got in the way, just as they do in business, or, in what is sometimes called in contrast to childhood and college, the real world.
Young people today have ambition, but they often look to the end results (fame and fortune) with little guidance as to what it actually takes to achieve them. The Apprentice shows that the business world is a highly competitive meritocracy. And, ironically, the same is true of the entertainment industry, even though this is the source of the public's "celebrity" fantasies.
This is the lesson of American Idol and imitators like Nashville Star. It is really, really hard to be a successful musician-or actor, or writer, or moviemaker-and even talented artists must win out over intense competition. The contestants on Idol must not only work hard to perfect their craft against the most demanding critics; they must win over an audience.
Although luck-actually providence-is necessary to make it big, entertainment, no less than business, is driven by the laws of the marketplace: supply and demand, competition, hard work, product quality. Even celebrities need more than mere celebrity.
Attack of the clones
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was a huge hit for ABC. It was so successful that the network decided to run it not on just one night but on two. And then on three. Before long, ABC was practically all Millionaire all the time. Whereupon the public grew tired of it. The audience for the show and thus for ABC's schedule built around it vanished overnight. Trying to clone the goose that laid the golden egg ended up killing it.
The same thing is now happening at CBS and NBC, which have shows that are favorites with both critics and the public-CSI and Law and Order, respectively. Both networks decided to spin off these hits into franchises, and there will be even more of them this fall.
There is now CSI, about a forensics medicine team solving crimes in San Francisco, and CSI: Miami, which is the same idea except it happens in Florida. Both are big hits, so next fall CBS will offer CSI: New York.
NBC now has Law and Order, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. These have all done very well, so next fall NBC is adding a fourth, Law and Order: Trial by Jury.
The movie industry has tried the same approach: Find one hit, then replicate it in sequel after sequel or formula after formula. But the public became bored with more of the same, and the biggest recent hits were different from the usual fare: The Lord of the Rings (a trilogy, not sequels) and The Passion of the Christ.
The major television networks, desperate to compete with the variety available on cable, need to learn the same lesson. The answer is neither to clone the few hits they have, nor to imitate the raunchiness of cable. Rather, they need a jolt of creativity. They need to come up with something new.
Medical detective work is indeed interesting, although the dissection of corpses is not all that enjoyable to watch on a regular basis. Hyper-realistic crime dramas are well and good, but not to watch four nights a week. Aren't there any other ideas?
When it comes to watching DVDs, one way to have your cake without eating what is bad for you is to use filtering technology to bleep out bad words, edit out sex scenes, and fast-forward through violence. From the almost-never-used
V-chip installed in every recent TV set-which simply blocks out shows with particular ratings that the parents set-to devices such as the bad-language-bleeping Television Guardian, technology can block out elements in the media
that families do not want to come into their homes.
Now, filtering technology has broken into the mass market. RCA has made a DVD player that has the popular filtering software ClearPlay built in. The device costs only $79. And it is being sold by the retailer that reaches more Americans than any one else: Wal-Mart.
This new DVD player has settings for various levels of violence ("moderate," "graphic," "disturbing"), sex ("sensual," "crude," "nudity," "explicit"), language ("vain reference to deity," "crude language and humor," "ethnic and social slurs," "cursing," "strong profanity," "graphic vulgarity"), and drug use.
ClearPlay uses a specific filter programmed for each movie. The DVD player comes pre-programmed with 100 filters for some of the most popular films. More are continually made available, as new movies come out, from ClearPlay's website. Wal-Mart says it too will carry new filters.
Wal-Mart, along with other retailers, also carries TV Guardian, an attachment that bleeps out bad language by monitoring the closed-captioned script that airs on nearly all TV programs and videos. Next month, a VCR and DVD player from Sanyo will have TV Guardian built in.
The advantage of TV Guardian technology is that it works with virtually every TV program, not just videos. ClearPlay only works with DVDs for which it has filters. TV Guardian only deals with language, though. ClearPlay also gets rid of nudity and gore. These may be helpful, though they are no substitute for virtue.