Image from Fahrenheit 9/11 official site.
A quick quiz: which of the following entertainment tidbits is most likely to have an impact on your life?
A. Rosie O’Donnell and partner Kelly Carpenter got married in San Francisco
B. Fantasia won American Idol
C. Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palm D’Or at Cannes
D. Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple
The correct answer is C.
Michael Moore’s big win in France helped to generate interest in his movie, as well as a distribution deal in the States. At this point, following its record-breaking box office earnings, Fahrenheit 9/11 might affect undecided voters. As former Texas Governor Ann Richards recently noted on Larry King Live, this presidential election will be decided by a handful of still undecided voters.
But at the time of Fahrenheit‘s win, Entertainment Tonight was covering other stories. Namely, the season finale of American Idol, the Academy of Country Music Awards, and the birth of Paltrow’s kid. These stories dominated the “entertainment news” program, as well as Extra! and the E! Entertainment Network.
First airing in 1981, Entertainment Tonight (ET) is the grandfather of today’s entertainment news shows. Currently averaging seven million viewers a day, it has inspired a variety of like-minded insider-scoop shows, such as Access Hollywood and Celebrity Justice. These programs all share the same format: fast-paced, name-dropping banality, geared to promoting new product releases and stars, as opposed to helping viewers to make intelligent decisions about how to spend their discretionary dollars.
Of course, fascination with Hollywood’s elite is nothing new. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons rose to prominence by reporting the comings and goings of celebrities. They didn’t claim to be serious journalists; they were gossip columnists. Today’s programs present themselves as news, reports on the latest and most important stories coming out of the entertainment world.
With this in mind, I planned to tune in to a week’s worth of three shows: Entertainment Tonight, Extra!, and E! News. However, after viewing only one episode of each, I could stomach no more. Since the websites of each show claimed to have the “inside scoop” and numerous “exclusives,” I was hoping to learn about the production and quality of current and future projects, regardless of the entertainment genre. What I got was Jamie-Lynn (The Sopranos) DiScalia’s summer vacation plans. Twice.
The first time I heard about Jamie-Lynn’s plans was on 28 May’s ET; I learned more enthralling details on that same day’s episode of Extra! These two reports provide details on vacation plans of 16 different celebrities. Among the other breaking news on ET was Charlize Theron’s upset about her loss of privacy, Michael Douglas playing a celeb golf tournament without his wife, Mary Hart being named “Mother of the Year” by an L.A. charity, and a new book repeating the gossip that Jackie Kennedy knew her husband was unfaithful. Extra was equally informative, telling me that Cameron Diaz has trouble remembering her lines, Madonna is going on tour and expecting to make a lot of money, and many special effects-driven films will be released this summer (just like every other summer).
Unfortunately, I was unable to discover more secret vacation hideouts on E! News that day, as regular programming was pre-empted by 12 hours of 101 Biggest Celebrity Oops, 101 Starlicious Makeovers, and Trust Fund Babies. The next day, I checked online headlines at Variety. These dealt with the record-setting box office returns of the weekend, the Weinsteins’ purchase of Fahrenheit 9/11, Craig Plestis’ appointment as head of “alternative programming” (reality tv) at NBC, and the failure of the German radio station ProSiebenSat 1 to promote a pro-U.S. line, despite expectations it would. Clearly, where Variety aims to report entertainment news that could have an impact on what we will (or will not) see on our tvs and at the box-office, entertainment shows fulfill our insatiable need for rumors and scandals.
Still hopeful, I decided to focus on the Fahrenheit 9/11 story, returning to the shows’ websites to see how they covered it. On 27 May, ET mentioned the win at Cannes in an article buried four pages deep into the site. E! Online also reported Moore’s win, but failed to mention the film’s relationship to the U.S. political scene. Extra! was even less forthcoming. A search of the site for “Cannes,” “Michael Moore,” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” led to an article noting the film would be shown at the Festival.
To be fair, Extra!‘s website did feature an article on the win’s importance on 3 June, 12 days after the fact. Meanwhile, mainstream newspapers and news programs featured the story immediately, often as a front-page story or as one of the leads, and the win was the subject of editorials in the U.S., England, Hong Kong, and India.
It seems clear that entertainment news shows are not interested in reporting “news.” Instead, they focus on gossip and product promotion, including clips and interviews with some of the artists involved. ET‘s story on Soul Plane, featuring an interview with star Mo’nique, is a perfect example.
Nowhere in the report were viewers led to believe that the film was anything but a laff riot for the whole family. Overlooked were the mostly negative reviews of the film, such as Cynthia Fuchs’ observation on PopMatters that the film “runs through a seeming checklist of images to make everyone equally offended and nervous” or The Diva’s advice at 3BlackChicks.com: “I wouldn’t waste my money on this mess.”
Nowhere is such promotion more evident than in the shows’ handling of American Idol. The season finale garnered 31.4 million viewers. Though this is a monumental number, it loses some weight when one considers that 250 million Americans did not watch. Still, according to ET, Extra!, and E! News, the nation came to a standstill every Wednesday night to tune in to the show. Again, ET led the charge with daily reports for the entire season, and weekly behind the scenes “looks,” with Paula Abdul. A week after the finish, ET featured all finalists in a mass interview and performance.
As annoying as they can be, entertainment programs aren’t solely culpable for the glut of non-information regarding Idol or any other over-hyped product. Idol‘s producers are master marketers, using entertainment media to hawk Fantasia and other contestants, making them available to the press at any time and allowing reporters backstage access. This is the way business is done: numerous films, tv shows, and CDs work together to provide similar free press from one another, through product placement as well as less “subtle” means. In part, this is a function of “synergy,” as most of the shows and labels are owned by conglomerates; Extra!, for instance, is owned by Warner Bros. But today’s reporters still pretend to be “objective,” unlike Parsons and Hopper, who openly played favorites to appease their bosses. So, what role does the viewer play in this multipart relationship? More importantly, why do people tune in? Peter Gruber, former head of Columbia and Sony Pictures and current host of Shoot-Out on AMC, asserts, “We, as a culture, would rather be entertained than informed. We want to be titillated, not educated.” Similarly, Dr. James Houran of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine argues that one third of the population feels “intimately connected” to a celebrity (qtd. in Wehrman, “New Magazines Fanning the Ever-changing Flames of Celebrity,” The Tennessean, 18 August 2003). An expert in celebrity worship, Houran concludes that persons exhibiting characteristics of such attractions usually possess higher levels of social dysfunction, living vicariously through the lives of the rich and famous, or, in extreme cases, one particular celebrity (Maltby, McCutcheon, Ashe, and Houran, “The Self-Reported Psychological Well-Being of Celebrity Worshippers,” North American Journal of Psychology, 2001, Vol. 3:3).
Dr. Joyce Brothers has an explanation: for most of us, basic needs have been met, allowing us more time to “fritter away on less important things” (qtd. in Horovitz, “The Good, Bad, and Ugly of America’s Celeb Obsession,” USA Today, 19 December 2003). As entertainment programming feeds into such “frittering,” everyone wins: multinationals and production companies get free publicity, celebrities keep themselves before a fickle public, and fans gain “inside” info.
But there are losers, too—those genuinely interested in the business aspects and critical receptions of entertainment projects and those who must endure the dizzying effects of here-today-gone-tomorrow celebrity, from Gary Condit and Kato Kaelin to Elian Gonzalez and Trista and Ryan. Ultimately, it’s your decision. If you feel the need to keep up the latest exploits of Kobe, Madonna, and Angelina, entertainment news is ideal. If you want to know what’s coming to theaters, tv or the radio, again, the shows are useful.
Still, I prefer to find my entertainment news elsewhere, without the gossip and questionable praise. I care more about Fahrenheit 9/11‘s effects on this year’s election than where Brad and Jennifer will be lounging this summer. Based on the box-office receipts for the film and the number of dissenters and supporters outside of theaters showing it, it’s safe to assume I am not alone in that concern. But you would never know that from watching entertainment news.