Once in a while the stars align, and all the pieces in the puzzle fall into their right places. As far as TV viewing is concerned, in all its possible and impossible incarnations, it will happen in Israel on Tuesday, March 17, 2015 at 22.00: the three newscasts, on channels 1, 2, and 10, will unveil the results of their election exit polls.
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For some years now we, and the people out there in TV land, have been experiencing privatization of the screens – not in the sense of content providers being bound only by the bottom line (and not, say, any notion of public service devoted to gathering and delivering information from qualified sources) – but in the sense of the act of TV viewing itself becoming a private pursuit to be savored at one’s leisure and one’s own schedule.
The notion of watching TV as a “public” phenomenon in these times of private viewing has been retained, but is restricted to events of a very specific nature: breaking news that happens as we watch, with events unfolding at their errant pace with unexpected twists and turns. Here, our viewing schedule is dictated by reality, not the calculations of programmers or constraints of our time and will.
Such events often have much to do with matters of life and death – terror attacks, wars, violent vagaries of Mother Nature (I always wonder why no one blames father nature for volcano eruptions and tsunamis wreaking havoc), or nuclear disasters. When the world, or parts of it, is about to end, we prefer to suppress our individual natures and become a “public,” staring at the small screen in a group, possibly to cheer ourselves up with togetherness.
You are there
But there are other events that have nothing to do with death or life; on the contrary, in a way they have nothing to do with real life, and yet they demand, deserve and receive our common attention as a public glued to the same screen, in the same room and at the same time. These are games, mainly in the field of sports and entertainment. The Superbowls, the Olympics and the Oscars take place at a specific time, and we have to be “there” in front of the screen for the “you are there” feeling. But more important than that: It is not only about participation, but, and mainly, about the result. You, as a part of the viewing public gathered in your living room at an appointed time, are there as an involved and anticipating fan of one side in the brawl. It’s not “real,” since it is only a game or a contest, and no blood is supposed to be spilled or life lost in the process. But in a sense, it is as real as it gets: you cheer the hits and boo the misses of your side, and jeer the misses and sneer at the hits of the other side. Unlike in the case of wars and disasters, where whatever side you side with there is nothing much you can do about it, here you harbor the illusion that your involvement does matter and can make a difference.
Elections – and their TV broadcasts – are a rare combination of a real-life, unfolding event that can have life-and-death repercussions, combined with the sense of a game being played where the only thing that matters is the result and the score. Like the Olympic Games, it is all about participation, (or party-cipation) and one should take part in it even – and especially – when one is well aware that his or her private vote will not count in swinging the vote and turning the tide of events this way or that. And at the same time, it is all about your side winning, preferably decisively. One prefers to be on the winning side, even if one is rather used to being among the fans of parties that “also ran.”
There is yet a third side to this coin as well. The most popular format of TV programs in recent years is reality TV, in which we as viewers follow seemingly real people, like you and me, in circumstances that supposedly happen as we see them, live. In reality – and that small word, like its brother, truth, acquires and loses contradictory meanings with lightning speed – “reality” shows are anything but real. They are contrived and edited versions of events taped over time, whose ingredients – the characters, affliliations, hues, ideas and juxtapositions of the participants – are carefully weighed to provide “drama” which purports to be life “as it happens.”
There is a notion of this “unreal reality” in the election broadcasts. At 22.00 they will reveal the results of their exit polls, each according to its statisticians’ formula of predicting the “real” results. And if that is not enough – a live, unfolding event plus a game in progress waiting for the score, plus reality TV – there is also a distinct feeling of the longest and most arduous foreplay to complement the longest blowjob (in Jon Stewart’s view) – in the form of the various political campaigns and spins of the participating parties in the days, weeks and months leading up to the unavoidable anticlimax.
The whole point of foreplay is to build up and create a sense of anticipation, to boost the participation, and bring the nation to the voting booths even in a case of unexpected precipitation. However, on election day itself, during the long time on air between the results of the exit polls and the first notion of the real results of the vote, we will witness and hear a lot of empty words and splitting hairs of hypotheses and rumors and see many reporters on camera having to fill the void with endless and meaningless verbiage.
So, call up your friends, prepare a lot of booze to celebrate your victory or drown your sorrow, gather around the set, and may the best people win. We’re on a losing streak anyway.