Add to the growing list of modern media maladies Event Fatigue Syndrome, a viral strain that is simultaneously under-diagnosed and, like so much these days, over-reported.
The entertainment industry obviously has an incentive to transform everything into an event, seeking to break through clutter and make noise over the din. Yet thanks to digital-age pressures, a vast ecosystem of media regularly joins in building up the trivial and engaging in hyperbole that helps conflate minor happenings into major ones.
Nobody can really throw stones here (Variety included), since vigorous competition compels us to pounce on perceived ratings and traffic generators. The result, however, has been a proliferation of contrived showcases so dizzying and time-consuming as to threaten to obscure actual news when it happens.
Television marketers have certainly been clever about mining this trend. A small example: the subtle genius of bifurcating seasons to double the number of “premieres” and “finales” — introducing, say, a winter finale that used to just mean “We’re taking a break for reruns.” Teaser campaigns have also gotten into the act, where the trailer for “Fifty Shades of Grey” can foster as much enthusiasm (and incidentally, be less risible) than the movie.
The down side of Event Fatigue Syndrome (or EFS, for short) is that it virtually requires a short memory and narrowed vision for the condition to persist. That explains how every year pundits can wonder why well-established events like the Oscars or Grammys have seemingly lost luster, when the more legitimate question is how they remain so durable amid a tide of fabricated imitators.
Take the recent “Saturday Night Live” anniversary special. Granted, 40 years is a nice round milestone, but it’s not like NBC hasn’t celebrated the franchise repeatedly through the years, which didn’t prevent the network from hyping the telecast beyond all reason with a whopping 4½-hour smorgasbord, complete with a red-carpet preshow. Then again, with all the red carpets being stretched out (including one for Comedy Central’s upcoming Justin Bieber roast), peddling colorful fabric is clearly a growth industry.
Given all that, there’s some irony in NBC News’ Brian Williams potentially torpedoing his career by exaggerating events on which he reported, ostensibly to make them more entertaining — and perhaps raise his level of gravitas.
While the criticism is certainly valid, the indignation directed toward the anchor conveniently overlooks how eager news divisions have become to participate in self-serving PR puffery, such as having the “Today” show team emcee that “SNL” arrivals preshow, as if it were a momentous occasion. Williams’ behavior is obviously more egregious, but the sanctioned use of news stars in such settings — and not just by NBC but by ABC as well — shows a telling trend toward tarnished credibility.
In one of his final pieces, the late New York Times columnist David Carr addressed the profound challenge journalism faces in the digital age. Citing the narcissistic impulses associated with social media, Carr wrote in January, the imperative to shoehorn for-profit media “into the intimate space between consumers and a torrent of information about themselves is only going to be more difficult.”
Empowered by technology to escape into media bubbles of their own design, those same consumers can easily lose perspective about the significance of their favorite diversions. Yet if the target audience is demographically desirable and plentiful (see “The Walking Dead” for a sort-of perfect storm), media have ample motivation to reinforce those passions in order to exploit them, even if it requires a bit of exaggeration.
That practical reality has already produced its share of pandering by traditional media clawing to survive, and it would be naive to think the disease can be cured. Indeed, about the only available treatment at this point, when possible, is tuning the EFS out.