When the Camera Becomes a Character

Of all the consequences of our culture’s infatuation with reality programming, our increasing preference for “behind the scenes” shows — big air quotes there — is the most intriguing.

By “behind the scenes” I mean everything from literal fare like American Idol and SNL Backstage (the making of commercial personas) to mockumentaries like NBC’s The Office and CBS’ web series Clark and Michael (the making of the making of faux personas) to even, yes, YouTube itself (the making of “real” personas).

In preferring to be entertained by this process of making entertainment, it’s as if we’ve stepped back from original received experience — sitcoms that maintain that fourth-wall suspension of disbelief, for example — and embraced media that includes us. The camera is no longer a vessel for the audience, the camera is the audience. And since we are participants in the media, the camera has become a character.

American Idol 2007 winnerSo what does that mean exactly? On a purely business level, our increasing media savvy means we’re telescoping our content possibilities. Take American Idol for example. You can draw a clear trend line between Idol and, say, American Bandstand. Bandstand’s camera showed kids dancing to new music performed by live bands. That was an easy concept in the ’50s. Music plays, kids dance, camera films, people watch. Fast forward to Idol’s debut in 2002, and you’ve got the camera showing judges evaluating singers and singers competing for audience votes. Conceptually, this requires a better understanding of the process of fame. It’s only because you understand the power of media and the legitimacy it confers that you’re intrigued by the process of acquiring that legitimacy.

Now consider a web-only show like SNL Backstage, which takes viewers behind the scenes at 30 Rockefeller Center while the actors and musicians rehearse. Part of Saturday Night Live‘s original attraction was its live aspect — here was a show, a funny show, broadcast live once per week. This was comedy being made. But now we’re watching the making of comedians making comedy. Because we are so media savvy, we’re amenable to extending the spectrum of content. We’re tired of stories. We want the stories behind the stories.

Not only that, but notice in SNL Backstage how the camera crews sometimes film themselves filming the stars. Now we’re watching the making of the making of the making of comedy. Or hey: Watch Goodnight Burbank. Would that show be funny if we weren’t intimately familiar with the rhythms of evening newscasts and the cadences of newscaster speech?

cbs clark and michaelAnd how about The Office and Clark and Michael. Here are two mockumentaries that work only because we, the audience, are able to empathize with the camera. The camera, with its perfectly-timed pans and zooms, sits in judgment of the characters. Both shows are filled with awkward silences that would never work in traditional television, but work here because the silence is “broken” by the action of the camera. As I said in a recent review of Clark and Michael for the Hollywood Reporter, the camera is a moralizing force. It is the new Greek chorus.

All of these tricks are metastasized in YouTube. Consider Lonelygirl15. On a technical level, Lonelygirl15 is almost a throwback to the single camera days of the 50s. But the show is intriguing because we understand the power of this camera, because the camera is not a vessel for the audience but is, actually, the audience. We are “behind the scenes” in a teenage bedroom. And that applies to most of the other amateur vids on the site as well. “Amateur production values” is simply a euphemism for saying that we’re not watching entertainment, we’re watching the making of entertainment. Remember that when, while watching a funny video, you hear the cameraman break into laughter.

FWIW, as I’m sure you’re aware, each of these trends permeates the rest of culture too, from celebrity magazines that investigate the nuances of stars’ personal lives to Shrek 3, which couldn’t exist without all the hackneyed fairy tales that had come before.

But as we blithely go about celebrating this all-new, all-inclusive media culture, it’s worth considering that, each time we pull back the curtain on entertainment, we’re making what were formerly private processes into monetizable, public ones. Thus we’re actually placing another barrier between reality and reception. We’re not getting closer to each other. We’re actually stepping away.