All trends and fads have life cycles: the difference between a trend and a fad is how long it lasts. Fads die quickly – nowadays within weeks – while trends either exhaust themselves over months or morph into permanent components of our cultural milieu.
So it is that many of us look at the Balloon Boy, the Salahis and the apparently limitless supply of reality TV shows, and pray that the current pandemic of narcissism which compels people from all walks of life to humiliate themselves publicly in the pursuit of a few minutes of fame is only a fad, and will soon end.
We may be disappointed.
Take reality TV, which most people think is a recent invention. Some will say it began with “Candid Camera” in the late 1940’s, but that program was more along the lines of today’s “Punk’d,” insofar as its victims were largely unwitting.
The true genesis of the genre in terms of willfully exposing one’s private affairs to the public at large was “An American Family,” the 12-hour documentary aired in 1973 — on PBS, of all places. The “Family” were the Louds: parents Bill and Pat, and their five children: Kevin, Grant, Delilah, Michele and Lance, who was the first openly gay person on TV, and whose death in 2001 was chronicled in a revisit.
To be fair, the PBS project was a de facto documentary, produced for all the right reasons, and it had some class, unlike most of the trashy productions being rolled out today for the purpose of nothing more elevated than making a buck as cheaply and as quickly as possible. When you don’t have to pay real talent, or build real sets, you can make a lot more money, and that is what the commercial TV networks have always sought to do.
Similarly, 24/7 news channels need something to report, and they also want to do it as cheaply as possible. And, because we live in a world where every person with a cell phone is an “on-scene” contributor, the Balloon Boy and the Salahis get lots more air time than they deserve or we need.
But underlying all of it is a combination of factors.
One is the coming of age of the Millenials (a/k/a “Gen Y”), that generation of children whose parents rewarded and praised them for everything they did, no matter how insignificant or fundamental; who played sports in which everybody won a trophy or a ribbon; and who grew up believing that everybody finds them as fascinating, special and amazing as their parents did. All of which accounts for Facebook.
But there is also what Faith Popcorn calls “Egonomics” – a hunger for recognition as an individual in a society that is increasingly more depersonalized.
We can only hope that enough entertainment and news consumers tire of the mediocrity being peddled to quit watching, forcing the producers to elevate both their program content and the criteria for public acknowledgment.