If It's on TV, It Must Be Unreal

We used to joke that “if it’s in print, it must be true.” But now we seem to think that our dominant medium, TV, makes things unreal. I don’t think that this is just a function of the “distrust of authority” wave that has swamped cultures around the world–notwithstanding the King of Thailand‘s pathetic outlawing of disrespectful videos on YouTube. I think the line between fact and fiction on TV has blurred weirdly in the direction of fiction–as it has in the related media of film and popular music, and celebrity in general.

I got thinking about this driving home this afternoon from the studios of Global TV. For those outside Canada, Global TV is one of our national networks–indeed, a network that jumped from its regionally modest name of “CanWest” to the ambitious “Global” in one fell swoop. Yes, a bit unusually megalomaniacal for a Canadian company, I agree.

I was there to tape a short segment for Canada’s finest Christian TV show, “Listen Up,” hosted by Lorna Dueck. (I sympathize with those who think that to call it “Canada’s finest Christian TV show” is to damn with faint praise. But Lorna is a fine journalist by any measure and this is a pretty good show–despite her occasional lapses in the selection of guests…!)

Anyhow, while I was getting made up, I found myself between one Global news anchor, Deborra Hope, and another, Kevin Newman. And while they looked a little unreal in their perfect makeup, hair, and clothes, they were nonetheless real people getting ready to go to work. They bantered with the make-up artist, they politely made conversation with the odd duck in the room (yes, the theological professor), they discussed a current event or two–just like people at your job.

And I came away thinking, “Why am I surprised at this experience?”

I got on an elevator in a Winnipeg hotel a few years ago and the only other occupant was Kiefer Sutherland. It was late, we were both tired, and we said hello just as if we were ordinary people–which, of course, I assuredly am, but then, so is he.

Backstage once at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, my wife and I got to meet Diana Krall through a mutual friend. She was courteous to us and posed for a photo, as the star she is. But before she did, she giggled with her family who were over from Nanaimo for the performance–just as every performer I’ve ever seen has done offstage of a high school musical or a church concert.

On the set of Fantastic Four, I was chatting with my one single heavyweight Hollywood friend, producer Ralph Winter, when a young woman went by, glad to take a little juice break as everyone else was. She was just like the rest of us, except she was in a blue jumpsuit with a big “4” on it and her name was Jessica Alba. As she passed, she did what any polite person does: smiled, nodded in greeting, ducked her head, and headed for the snack trailer.

There is something odd going on with the rash of magazines now that try to tell us that celebrities are just like us, except that they aren’t: everything they do seems to be remarkable, if not sensational, while precious little that I do, or you do, is–right? In fact, they seem not just larger than life, but other than life, as if they are just dramatis personae: “Paris,” “Jessica,” “Anna Nicole,” “Brad,” “Jay,” “Beyonce,” “Denzel,” “Oprah”–not real people, but mere characters whom we can enjoy observing and gossiping about. They are not actual human beings for whom we might, for instance, pray.

I remember how in the 1970s television undermined America’s confidence in its government as the news showed body bags and coffins coming back from Viet Nam. Now, however, I just can’t quite believe things are really as they are in Darfur or North Korea or Myanmar. Too many well-made movies and TV shows have rendered the whole troubled world a mirage. And after “lonelygirl17” and other YouTube frauds, we can’t trust that anymore, either. What is real has shrunk down to my little horizon of personal experience. If I haven’t been there and seen it, then it’s not real.

Israel used to be just “Bible Story Land” to me until I went there. Now it’s real–but Saudi Arabia isn’t. China is real (been there), but Japan is just a bizarre mental kaleidoscope of samurai countryside and neon Tokyo. France is real (mmmm), but Germany isn’t. And so on.

And it (whatever “it” is–or “he” or “she”) is especially not real if I have seen it on TV. Rather than bring the world to me, as the news shows promise to do, it has pushed the world away. What is happening internationally or even in another municipality is now as “real,” and no more, as the next DVD I pop in.

So I don’t pray much, or donate much, and I certainly don’t grieve much. In fact, I’m as likely to get teary over a well-produced TV drama or movie as I am about a World Vision program or a newscast clip. And then I push the button, the Bad Things go away, and I can get about my business.

And that would mean I’m insane, wouldn’t it? Literally failing to distinguish between reality and unreality?

These musings evidence that I’m no Marshall McLuhan or Neil Postman, and I promise to get back to subjects I actually know something about soon. But the emotion of mild surprise of meeting two “TV people” in the make-up room today itself surprised me. Why should I have expected anything otherwise? Rationally, I wouldn’t have. But there’s something irrational going on here, and I don’t like it….

Do you feel it, too?

0 Responses to “If It's on TV, It Must Be Unreal”

  1. Matt

    As I was reading this I was thinking of Postman and what he might thing about this issue. It seems like we have to find a balance: The “Now this…” mentality; the de-contextualized and un-personal is pushed against by the burden of caring for and believing in everything we see. Practically speaking both extremes would be a detriment to ourselves and the world around us.

    A bit of a ramble, but I have just felt let down by much if what the news networks have provided; both in content and presentation. It makes it difficult for me to believe in the reality of something when they switch from the horrors going on in Darfur to a piece on a family’s adoption of a cute puppy.

  2. Brian E.

    I really like Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent” and his exploration of the limitations of different media. If you accept some of his basic arguments, it is difficult to watch TV or movies without asking fundamental questions like: Who paid for this program? What perspectives are supported or not voiced? What factual claims are being made and why? Am I indulging in escapism? Can a panel of guests or even just one guest engage in a meaningful discussion on TV within X minutes? (Where X=the attention span of an average viewer or the time between commercials for a new razor with 6 blades and a tennis star’s deodorant).
    Professor Stackhouse, since you’ve been on TV, do you think it is possible to have a serious and meaningful discussion on any theological subject on TV?

  3. dan

    I suspect that the fact that Television “makes things unreal” has less to do with YouTube frauds and more to do with the nature of the medium itself (yes, I too have been inspired by McLuhan and Postman… and Vatican II, which has some interesting reflections on “the media of social communications” in the document entitled Inter Mirifaca).

    Moving pictures, no matter how “realistic,” will always be fictions. Therefore, no matter what our intentions are — say we want to portray brutal scenes of violence in order to inspire empathy within the audience — the medium of television will always subvert those intentions and warp what is portrayed — and thus scenes of violence only end up reflecting (and/or increasing?) the apathy of the audience, regardless of the emotions that the audience members feel at the time of viewing. It is important to keep that last point in mind. A strong emotional response to a carefully manufactured image on TV should not be confused for any sort of genuine empathy. For this is how TV hides the way in which it fictionalises and warps that which it portrays: by inspiring strong emotions it creates the simulacra of empathy.

    Irreversible is, perhaps, the classic example of this (actually, The Passion of the Christ, might be the exampe of this, but I won’t go there). The director of Irreversible argued that he had to include a nine minute long rape scene in order to show his audience the true brutality of rape — and audiences (so I’m told) were appropriately horrified. However, the people that I know who have been sexually assaulted did not then turn to those who viewed this movie because those viewers has suddenly become more understanding or safe or empathetic. Rather, the people I know who have been sexually assaulted decided they would never tell their stories to the sort of person who would go and watch that movie. Thus, Irreversible, despite the emotions it created, simply reflected (and perhaps deepened) the apathy already present in audience members.

    As I have become increasingly convinced of the way in which TV fictionalises our efforts to show the truth, I have been led into further reflections on the place of truth within an image-oriented culture. Is it something about TV itself, or is it something about images, that produces this fictionalisation? In a culture where the word is humiliated (Jacques Ellul) how can Christians still be agents of truth?


  4. John Stackhouse

    Brian E. asks whether I think serious theological conversation can happen on TV. It’s a very good question because the medium can contain only certain messages.

    I once was asked by ABC News to comment on “Jesus talk” by U.S. presidential candidates in the election campaigns of 2000–Bush and Gore. The reporter doing the story, Peggy Wehmeyer, was a well-respected journalist who covered religion full-time. So I expected a good interview.

    Peggy was in Dallas and I was in Vancouver, so she was merely “in my earpiece” while I looked into a camera set up in our home. She asked me why the candidates were moving beyond declaring allegiance to God to testifying to faith in Jesus–a key question. I answered as briefly as I could.

    Peggy then said, “That was very good, Dr. Stackhouse” (interviewers are almost always very encouraging!), but then said, “but we need it shorter.”

    So I tried again, this time leaving out some words and a concept–making it simpler, but also a little less interesting. Still, I knew it was TV and I had to make it short.

    “Better,” Peggy said. “But let’s try it one more time. That came in at thirty-seven seconds and we need no more than eighteen.”


    I found out that she had “quite a lot of time” scheduled for this piece: three-and-a-half minutes for the evening news. And that is a good-sized story, relatively speaking. But what can you say about a complicated subject in three-and-a-half minutes?

    Too much, apparently. The editors in New York cut me and the other expert they interviewed so as to make it just two minutes, leaving just Bush and Gore and Peggy.

    I’ve listened to Peggy lecture on religion and TV, and I’ve come away convinced that, despite her best efforts, some stories, some concepts, and some themes just cannot be forced into two- and three-minute stories. Which is to say, a LOT of religious material cannot be dealt with this way, so this kind of TV shouldn’t try.

    That’s why serious talk shows and documentaries remain so important. Many matters take time to unfold and explain and argue. With a good journalistic guide, useful discussions can take place.

    But serious talk shows and documentaries are among the most “wordy” and least “image-y” of TV genres–and thus we come to dan’s musings. The Bible is full of powerful images and narratives. But it also is full of propositions, promises, prophecies, and other sentences that don’t necessarily translate well into arresting sights.

    The Word became flesh, yes, but we have our chief access to his earthly career through a Book–not a DVD.

    TV can do some things well, including the discussion of ideas, as has been argued since the 1950s. “Good Night and Good Luck” is a testimony to that ideal. So I still go on good shows like Lorna’s.

    But those shows often have trouble gaining support and audiences. How much, then, is it TV’s fault and how much is it ours?

    “Network” is my favourite movie. Every time I watch it, and I watched it again today, I hope it’s wrong, that TV doesn’t in fact co-opt, pervert, and then kill everything it touches. But every time I watch it, the chills return.

  5. Gerry Bowler

    Here is a book I can’t recommend highly enough for the debate about the problems of television and religion: “Bonfire of the Humanities: Television, Subliteracy and Long-Term Memory Loss” by David Marc.


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