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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

television game shows as carnivalesque

The importance of carnival as a cultural identity has been continuously explored in the contemporary times. The carnivalesque has been used to refer to the ways in which festive rituals, newspapers, and theatre subverted hierarchy, authority and power in all sorts of binaries in class, gender and race. With the post-industrial world’s introduction of television, carnivalesque has continued to create an impact in identity formation. How does carnivalesque relate to television game shows, which are among the highest rated programs on the boob tube as well as among the greatest advertisement drawers?
The carnival spirit proved to be indestructible in human society since the tradition lives on after the Renaissance in the low-class genres of comedy, satire, fable, in the novel, and in popular stage. Even in TV, carnivalesque can be related even as this ordinary everyday medium demands viewer passivity or lack of participation by spectators as well as it is owned and controlled by giant capitalist corporations. Consumers are said to be completely passive when they react automatically to the various products shown on TV, attesting to the iron system of capitalist production and revealing capitalism’s absolute power even in media. Since TV, like movies, aims for realism, producers intend to make consumers see TV shows and the real world as each other’s extensions. Soap operas and, of late, reality TV become so indistinguishable to real life that spectators are forced to equate what they watch with reality especially in terms of the lack of room for imagination or spontaneity or sustained thought. This can be explained by, say, the illogical fury of TV viewers over the actors playing evil characters so effectively on TV that the former want to scream at, claw, or tear the latter apart for being villains to the bida. This can also be explained by the viewers’ calling the actors with their character’s names, referring to Marian Rivera as her TV character Marimar or to Jake Cuenca as his TV character Palos, for instance. Since this reality is capitalist, the effect is that the power of industrial society is lodged in the spectators’ minds. Supposedly, there is a deep structure to the culture industry, the unfailing reproduction in people of obedience to social hierarchy, and the disappearance of the individual in the dominant values of society.
This power of the capitalist industry finds parallel in that of the advertising world in "Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse." Author Sut Jhally points to values crisis in which consumption is corporately replicated as the true means of satisfaction and happiness. Since advertising has become the greatest propaganda pitch in all of human history, its negative cultural effect as mentioned earlier can bring the world to its ultimate destruction. The culture of commercialization in advertising threatens the world’s survival because values are changed with the society turning increasingly consumerist. This being the problem, it must be quickly attacked through articulating social change.
However TV and its shows are seen as produced for the masses, these are, to an extent, ultimately produced by the masses themselves when TV has already become established as a mass popular form. This is so because despite being outside the dominant paradigms, the audience can be considered to demand for the kind of shows they watch instead of these shows being foisted on them. If shows they do not like are aired on TV, the spectators cannot be expected to stay put and watch the shows like they are brain dead without any choice to move out of the detestable experience. On the other hand, if shows they like are aired this time, they support them, sometimes become interactive with these shows (i.e. participate in phone-in or SMS-based discussions or promotions), and are, at most, bothered by capitalists only through the shows’ commercial advertisement loads. The pleasures spectators enjoy in placing themselves under the spell of narratives are precisely those which ensure the reproduction of society's power. But they destroy such pleasures and destroy such narratives by being self-reflexive, by drawing attention to the cultural text (i.e. show) itself, thereby creating distance between spectators and society. As a result, it is the spectators who actually create the show by deciding its make-or-break fate.
Cultural products like TV shows, arguably, are never totally determined by their conditions of production. They have their own relative autonomy as unpredictable, contradictory, ambiguous, and possibly resistant to dominant discourses because their audience has some say on whether they stay for more or less than the normal season they are aired in Philippine TV. The reduction of all popular visual culture to an underlying deep structure has been challenged by cultural texts being too ambiguous to yield single meanings and values. The contemptuous dismissal of popular culture and its replacement by a highly rationalist aesthetic has been questioned by the hospitality of postmodernism to the popular, in its mixing of "high" and "low" forms, and in its valorizing of pleasure, parody, self-parody, whimsy, and pastiche. This challenge to elitist aesthetic can be seen in the current popularity of TV game shows.
Understanding the enormous popularity and persistence of game shows on Philippine TV the likes of Game Ka Na Ba?, Wheel of Fortune and Wowowee can be drawn from the idea of carnival games of luck and chance in the marketplace, in sports and cards, in various forms of fortunetelling, wishing and predictions, as well as those carnivals during town perya (fairs) or fiestas. The carnivalesque genre of parodic prophecies and riddles is opposed to the genre of serious prophecies, which were of a gloomy character. Such games try to approach the world, time and the future, not as a sad mystery play but as a satirical drama. Prophecies now concern not only the fate of government officials, stars, and celebrity personalities and the great events of the official world, but the life and destinies of the lower classes. In opposing the merry to the serious, the times are turned into a gay (no pun intended) condition. Instead of seeing the future as fixed and unalterable, as sad and terrifying, time and destiny could appear carefree and open; the universe could be seen as not necessarily tragic. In carnivalesque, the images of games were seen as a condensed formula of life and of the historical process: fortune and misfortune, gain and loss, crowning of temporary victors, and uncrowning. Life was presented as a miniature play, a play without footlights. At the same time, games drew the players out of the bounds of everyday life, liberated them from usual laws and regulations, and replaced established conventions by other, lighter conventions.
The carnivalesque examination of game shows helps explain their persistence into the postmodern era, and is at least part of the reason why game shows on TV have been so popular. We can also see such a study as important in the popularity of, say, Wowowee. In this noontime show, the serious conventions and expectations of life are replaced with lighter conventions, and are transposed into a happy and light key. Life as narrative always hangs on suspense, the possibility of a triumph succeeding if only various obstacles can be overcome, and much of the fun in the show involves the chief obstacle, that the contestants have only a rare chance to win a life-altering fortune. Game is associated with luck and chance, and so is given the chance of defeating fate as an inevitable failure. It mocks and uncrowns the notion of life as tragedy. Instead, Wowowee as life is associated with pleasure, clowning, openness, possibility, the chance to greet one’s kamag-anak (relatives) abroad, to dance or sing or act one’s fifteen minutes of fame, or to take home an amount of money only dreams can manufacture for poor Pinoys.
It is important to note that this drama has a story to tell in a way that is no less than carnivalesque. In "Narrative Theory and Television," Susan Kozloff theorizes that a narrative has two parts namely the story or "what happens to whom" and discourse or "how the story is told." What is seen on television is an unfolding story, while the coaxing of the host for the contestants to confess anything that will show their human angle, and their accompanying laughter, cries and talent performance spice the discourse and create the carnivalesque. There is also the element of suspense, a factor that propels the narrative. When the drama reaches the climax part in which the decision of the contestants will either make or break their dream of becoming instantly rich, that is where the suspense lies. The carnivalesque is not neglected, as a dizzying array of cheerers, dancers, drum rolls and other such images will lead the contestants to their highest dramatic point.
In drawing its players out of the bounds of everyday life, liberating them from usual laws and regulations, Wowowee also acts as a theatre, a satirical drama, a grotesque and embarrassing exposure of one’s talent for singing, dancing, and crying and laughing simultaneously. Wowowee, then, reveals society to itself. It is a theatre of social attitudes, providing space for the drama of the masses. It reveals private attitudes for public awareness. It is, therefore, highly participatory for the audience at home who might be the relatives being greeted, the interactive home partners or the sympathizers of the poor, as well as for the contestants and their groups of friends in the studio audience who dance, sing, and cavort with the rest of the show to the tune of the show host’s latest novelty single.
This theater-like carnival also recurs in Roland Barthes’ "The World of Wrestling." In his essay, Barthes sees the spectacle of professional wrestling as a contemporary rendition of the classic Greek drama performed in amphitheater. The elements cannot be missed: the euphoria of men, the tragic and comical personas to humor the fans, the exaggerated gestures, the drama between the good and evil, all for the cathartic purpose for the viewing public. Before the audience is a flamboyant display of suffering, defeat and justice, a spectacle which can also be seen in the carnival display of poor people getting their lives’ just compensation in the drama that is Wowowee.
As it is, the carnivalesque popular culture sphere refuses to lie down and die, to be regulated out of its grotesque life, even if it suffers temporary defeats like games shows being slapped suspensions for alleged obscenity or fraudulent segments or racketeers using these shows to commit nefarious motives on unsuspecting avid fans of the programs. With the help of modern communication technologies such as the TV, popular culture remains outrageously omnipresent.
Barthes, Roland (1984). "The World of Wrestling." From Mythologies by Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang.
Jhally, Sut. "Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse." Department of Communication, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Amherst, MA 01003.
Kozloff, Sarah. "Narrative Theory and Television."

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