Familiar faces make the switch from small screen to city hall in our modern-day television democracy
”Fame is really the most trivial quality,» said British director Richard Attenborough last month after BBC viewers and listeners voted for their choice of the 100 Greatest Britons of the century. (Attenborough placed 63rd). We don’t know what sort of list Greek television viewers would come up with, or how they would rate stars of local television series and «reality shows,» such as «Lampsi,» «The Millionaire,» «Elli’s Eyes,» or «Big Brother.» The new municipal council of Athens which takes office on January 1 includes many entertainers and journalists, mainly known to the public from their appearances on television. Appearing on talk shows or in «television windows» is the ticket to success in politics. At worst, it is the ticket to political, professional or artistic survival for people who no one would have ever heard of otherwise. This is not to say that our newly elected officials do not have any talent for administration, good intentions and an unlimited appetite for work. However, there is every reason to suspect that they were not elected for their political ethos, or for their reputation as entertainers, but for the fact that their faces are so familiar. In an age of general isolation and the breakdown of the social fabric, television has brought us all closer together. This is by no means a new phenomenon. We saw it during the parliamentary elections. In an era that preceded television, popular film director Nikos Foskolos was better known than theater director Karolos Koun. Half a century ago, a guard at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus did not recognize the great classical actress Katina Paxinou, who was appearing at the theater, and would not let her enter. When Paxinou told him who she was, he replied: «I don’t care if you are Maya Melayia!» referring to a popular nightclub singer of the time. What is new is the extent of the phenomenon and the speed at which stars rise and fall. The time is certainly right for it. In traditional farming communities, as in small city neighborhoods, everybody knew everybody else, they shared more or less common problems. Postwar internal migration, hours spent daily commuting to and from work and limited free time have all led to a loosening of the bonds that link us, making it easy for television celebrities to become part of our social circle – a replacement for the social circle. Their joys and their sorrows become ours, with no obligation on our part – which is innocent enough if it were not for an underlying, and extremely worrying, trend. As a German poet once said, we have escaped the clutches of the tigers and sharks, only to be eaten by bedbugs. The trivial, the ridiculous and the vulgar – these are the three foundations of what forms the large bulk of the information provided by television (and unfortunately the print media as well). One might well wonder if it is possible to draw up and implement rules that might not quite transform private channels into small-scale versions of the BBC, but would at least limit some of their worst excesses. However, there is no code to protect us from the flood of trivia that is fated to result in unbridled vulgarity or modern fascism. Turning news bulletins into serials and photo-romances calls for both stars and walk-on parts. Particularly on the news bulletins on Alter and Star channels, no event is without close-ups, without a great deal of weeping and gnashing of teeth, without history’s goodies and baddies. Important international events, such as the recent elections in Brazil, are ignored or lost among a barrage of other «people-centered» stories such as the wedding of singer Giorgos Tsalikis or the show business ambitions of someone called Stella Bezandakou, who fell flat on her face during her first nightclub appearance, an incident that was shown on Alter’s evening news at least five times – not even the space shuttle Challenger got that much prime time. When the star system prevails in may sectors of public life, when politicians themselves fall in line with the rules of marketing, it seems pointless, if not hypocritical, to demand that private television stations promote other values and prototypes. Many public figures are only too happy to expose their own private lives and that of their families. Sometimes they consider it natural to coexist in the same television windows as advocates of racist hatred. The ludicrous has gone beyond any form of intervention or code of ethics. Recently on «Tete-a-tete,» what Alter calls its current affairs program, Nikos Evangelatos profiled his colleague Angeliki Nikolouli. We watched footage of Nikolouli on a swing and on a slide (not as a child), at her wedding 16 years ago, her son’s baptism and on a night out in Psyrri dancing zeibekiko and singing – «Angeliki as you have never seen her, having fun and in high spirits!» The question is not to make a choice between (television presenter) Eleni Menegaki or (academic) Eleni Glykatzi-Ahrweiler, but whether we evaluate public figures for their work and their views, or for their private lives. «How do you feel?» Questions such as these are a sure guide to success as a journalist, since they suit any situation. How do you feel about the terrorists’ arrest, about becoming a father, about the earthquake, about the earthquake that didn’t happen, about singing with X, about your party winning (or losing) the elections? No matter how stifling or inhuman real life can be, television turns it into a kingdom of individual emotions, a factory for transforming collective memory and consciousness. As long as television flatters people and makes them celebrities, it will continue to destroy and humiliate them. A television democracy that unsparingly provides «15 stations of fame» is a poor substitute for real democracy and representation by the people.