Saturday, February 10, 2007

Voyeur Nation

Back in the 1950s, the patron saint of broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow, hosted a weekly interview show on CBS called Person to Person. Both the tone and content of the program were surprisingly light for a Murrow vehicle; while the show devoted some episodes to world leaders and politicians, there were more than a few celebrity interviews, conducted live in their homes. Many of Murrow's colleagues thought the program was beneath his talents; in their minds, it was difficult to reconcile the crusading journalist who took on Joe McCarthy with the man who chatted with Liz Taylor or Sammy Davis, Jr. on a Friday evening.

Murrow frequently claimed that he did Person to Person to help his writers "pick up a little change." In reality, Ed Murrow owned the show, and he made a lot of green from those celebrity interviews. When he left CBS, Murrow sold the rights to the show back to the network for $1 million. But the criticism never ended, nor did Murrow's willingness to do the program as long as he remained on the network's payroll. According to writer and CBS historian Gary Paul Gates, when a fellow journalist accused him of "whoring," Murrow smiled and replied, "Yes, but look at all those voyeurs."

Obviously, Ed Murrow never met Anna Nicole Smith, but he clearly understood the culture that produces such a celebrity. And, had Ms. Smith achieved her peculiar "stardom" 50 years earlier, I'm sure that Murrow would have tried to secure an interview, to satisfy his audience of voyeurs. True, he would shudder at some of the breathless coverage of Smith's life (and recent death) from the tabloids and infotainment shows, but Murrow realized that celebrities still attract an audience, and celebrity train wrecks bring in even more viewers. Even in the staid 1950s, Person to Person generated a far larger audience than his more serious journalistic enterprises, such as See It Now, and the documentaries he produced for CBS Reports.

So, in some respects, our fascination with the celebrity culture (and their personal problems) is something that existed long before Entertainment Tonight and People magazine. But, on the other hand, you've got to wonder if--or when--our voyeur nation will finally get its fill of the salacious and the titillating. Many Americans will claim that they lost interest in Ms. Smith and her tawdry life about the time her first Playboy issue was ready for the trash can. That may be true (to some extent), but there were still enough spectators to keep Smith's "career" going for almost two decades. Millions of Americans are only vaguely aware that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons (which may prompt U.S. military action) but they can recite the "highlights" of Smith's life, chapter and verse.

In a certain, perverse way, Anna Nicole deserves partial credit for that. Extending one's 15 minutes of fame by a factor of 1000 (with no obvious talent beyond physical appearance) is no mean feat, particularly in a society that disposes of passe celebrities like so many used Kleenex. In fact, cynics might argue that Ms. Smith's untimely demise will actually prove an adroit career move, securing her place in the pop culture pantheon. As evidenced by James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Elvis, American loves a celebrity who drops dead in the prime of life, ensuring continuing interest--and income--for decades to come. Fifty years after his death, Dean's estate still earns thousands of dollars a year in licensing and royalty fees, and Elvis became far more popular after his passing than in the latter stages of his actual career. The value of the Presley brand increased a hundred-fold in the decades after he died.

Consequently, Ms. Smith's post-mortem stay in the limelight is not only the latest example of our collective fascination with the morbid, but it also speaks volumes about a culture cast adrift from its moral moorings. Not too many years ago (perhaps in Ed Murrow's day), the excessive and outlandish behavior of celebrities would spark certain interest, but it would also produce outrage and condemnation that would shame the offender and likely, end their career. The life of Anna Nicole Smith proves once more that anything goes in our culture, and anyone who speaks out against such "alternative lifestyles" are nothing more than cultural cretins. And sadly, Ms. Smith's conduct was almost tame by some standards; alcohol and drug abuse, shameless gold-digging, an out-of-wedlock birth. Compared to the icons of gangsta rap and certain segments of the film community, Anna Nicole Smith was almost a candidate for the Young Republicans.

Which brings us back to a society that was fascinated by Anna Nicole Smith and allowed her to earn an income and fame that far exceeded her modest talents. On one hand, it supposedly proves that anyone can achieve the American dream. On the other, it also demonstrates that Ed Murrow's voyeur nation is more prone to peep than ever before.

2 comments:

kitty said...

Yup, nothing like dying to give new life to one's career.

Peter said...

I agree