First published by The Australian, 25 September 1997

In “The era of living vicariously” (Opinion, September 17), Valerie Parv writes that in the wake of Thredbo, Port Arthur and Diana’s funeral, we are in danger of becoming a nation addicted to virtual experiences, hooked on virtual emotions, virtual romance and the virtual hobbies and crafts demonstrated on infotainment television.

The problem with Parv’s idea that we are retreating into a world of safe, risk-free virtual experiences is that it sees TV in black and white rather than in all its colour. It assumes that there is real life on the one hand, the world of TV on the other and that their orbits will never collide.

While footage of the Vietnam War may have made cynical and desensitised audiences of many viewers, it is now understood to have added impetus to a mass movement of anti-war protests across the world. Similarly, the first images of the Earth from the moon landings were seen by many as giving an emotional focus and public relations boost to a growing environment movement.

In recent years, media studies academics have been less interested in what TV does to you than what you do with TV. Friends getting together to laugh at and send up favourite soaps and dramas can be seen as affirming their sense of community and shared values rather than a group of individuals retreating into isolation.

When Parv says that “we increasingly crave the virtual experience and savour it in place of the real thing”, I would suggest that she is really expressing an anxiety that we can’t easily tell the difference between what is “real” or “authentic” experience and what is “fake” or “virtual” experience.

Reality and TV are interacting in ever more complex ways. When a piece of amateur video footage capturing the bashing of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers was repeatedly broadcast by US TV networks, it sparked an unforeseen series of events, climaxing in the Los Angeles riots.

In this context, deciding on where the media world ends and where real life begins is becoming increasingly difficult. The ABC’s Frontline – the often hilarious and sometimes chilling spoof of the TV current affairs show – owes its success to a playful bending of real and fictional characters and events.

Perhaps more confusing is the almost cartoon-like mixture of real events and media hype found in a new generation of “real life” TV programming. These shows are strange hybrid forms of entertainment, information and pure voyeurism.

The Jennifer Keyte-hosted Moment of Truth is just the latest in this genre to arrive on our screens. As with the series Weddings, the minutiae of everyday lives of everyday people are recorded, or they are given cameras to record their lives themselves. It is the very banality of our lives that seems to be the selling point of these programs. That we can watch them knowing that we are in the company of a million other casual voyeurs is part of what makes us turn on.

RATHER than indicating that we are all turning into passive watchers rather than doers, these shows can help explain the feeling that our every action is potential TV feed.

On a much grander scale, Australian communications theorist McKenzie Wark writes about the Gulf War as a series of feedback loops and “vectors” between audiences, the military and TV images. Opinion polls and military manoeuvres responded to TV images of Saddam Hussein stroking the hair of an English child held hostage. Images of George Bush walking through the desert and past rows of F-15 and F-16s in stage-managed sets constructed by a former Las Vegas advertising man, Sig Rogich, were part of a political strategy. With the unprecedented use of “missile cams” in the war, Wark argues that the “suturing” together of TV and viewer is almost complete. “This one missile becomes a million viewers,” he says, “stitched eyeball to eyeball with its line of flight into enemy territory.”

In a world of confusing boundaries, it’s hard to know the difference between the real us and the televised us. Were the masses who watched Diana’s funeral (whether at home or on the giant TV screens set up for the mourners outside of the service) manipulated to experience false emotions by the mass media? Or were they spontaneously expressing a sense of community and collective grief over the demise of someone who represented real values in their lives?

In the end, there is no simple real world versus the TV world. We could call this the Emma Dilemma, after the no-win situation that confronted Frontline’s researcher with a conscience. Caught between ratings, advertisers, overpaid egos and predatory executive producers, Emma was always powerless to change the established script of the show within the show. But what was so interesting about Emma was that, as the series progressed, she slowly began to transform into the people and environment that surrounded her.She was the literal embodiment of the idea that there was no inside or outside in the media. She, and we, are TV.

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