Steve Martin once joked about putting a woman on a pedestal high enough to see up her skirt. The relationship between media and royalty is similar, though the elevation also assists in knocking them off that perch with rocks and darts.
Last week, NBC announced elaborate multinetwork plans for coverage of the Royal Wedding. Based on the sheer volume — with reports blanketing NBC News (Brian Williams will be in London for the April 29 ceremony, while “Today” will begin originating from London a full week before) as well as MSNBC, E!, “Access Hollywood,” Telemundo and the Weather Channel — one could easily come away with the mistaken impression that America remains a British colony.
The obsession with the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, however, is hardly confined to NBC. TLC is running specials totaling nearly 90 hours counting down toward the big day, and other U.S. networks — Lifetime, WE, BBC America — are being equally lavish in their coverage. (Granted, not everyone is being quite so reverent, with TV Guide Network hiring acerbic comic Kathy Griffin to host its special.)
This outpouring of attention toward Britain’s monarchy happens to coincide with a renewed round of interest in what has often been characterized as American royalty, the Kennedys. In this case, the famous family is being presented in an eight-part miniseries, although the project’s unsavory origins — commissioned by History, which got cold feet about airing it, before landing on little-seen Reelz-Channel — is fit more for peasants, TV-wise, than kings.
By happenstance, “The Kennedys” premieres opposite a new Showtime series devoted to a more infamous brood, “The Borgias.” Yet all three of these seemingly unrelated clans — William and Kate, Jack and Jackie, Rodrigo and Giulia — have something in common: wealth, fame and controversy.
Even the Wall Street Journal got caught up in the wedding hype, gushing that 2.4 billion people — or 35% of the world’s population — would watch the event on TV or online, one of those staggering estimates made all the more convenient by the fact there’s virtually no way to accurately document that unsubstantiated prediction.
There are various theories why Americans would give a rip about British nobility, but the most popular one (advanced by TV execs in the Journal’s piece) is that they’re buying into the Cinderella aspects of the telegenic Middleton — a commoner, as it were — marrying a prince. That’s a pretty thought, but as friends across the pond might say, also utter rubbish.
The more logical explanation — as filtered through “The Kennedys,” “The Borgias” and other dramas as well — is a longstanding fascination with the problems and peccadilloes of the rich and famous (or notorious). It’s nice to think that despite their exalted status, they suffer from matters similar to our own — only magnified, much the way Charlie Sheen’s are by his multiple ex-wives, dual girlfriends and Tiger Blood.
So TV, the Web and print hoist celebrities above them to get a better look, but it’s with the implicit understanding there’s another kind of joy — frequently more satisfying — in tearing them down.
Perhaps that’s why “The Kennedys” — almost a caricature of the U.S.’ most celebrated political family — seems more preoccupied with the sexual escapades of Jack and Joe Sr. than with the Cuban Missile Crisis or efforts to desegregate the South. It’s certainly why the late Elizabeth Taylor captivated the public throughout her life, with plenty of adoring fans who could identify all seven of her husbands but would be hard-pressed to name that many of her movies.
The other change transforming the Royal Wedding into a “mediagasm” unlike even Prince Charles’ marriage to Diana Spencer is an inexorable shift in news priorities. In a click-through, traffic-driven world, its well-known that celebrity fluff is a hook to lure in a casual and elusive news audience; the real trick is then dressing up such events under the cloak of significance in order to justify all that pandering.
Of course, entertainment channels are promising a different sort of coverage, but with something as light on genuine news content as the Royal Wedding, the line separating froth from substance is virtually imperceptible. As Lifetime prexy Nancy Dubuc told the Journal, “We have a strong female audience captivated by the fairy-tale element.”
And they all lived trashily ever after.