FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno () - February 11, 2006 - 12:00am
This has to be the moment to critique the cult of entertainment that has somehow overrun all dimensions of the popular culture, driven by the immense power of television.

For too long, such a critique was not feasible. The entertainment "industry" was simply too large, too powerful and too successful to be vulnerable to radical criticism.

It is always difficult to argue against something that is apparently working very well.

The entertainment "industry" enjoys a large constituency.

The duopoly in the broadcast media, which has in its tantalizing hold three-quarters of television viewers, provides the optimal economies of scale for advertisers. Representatives of the advertising industry we dialogued with in the last episode of Media Nation, a forum of media stakeholders convened by the reformist movement Pagbabago@Pilipinas, admitted there could be no better model of efficiency (for their purposes) than the duopoly that now prevails. It allows them to reach the biggest number of consumers at the least cost.

The core constituency of the entertainment "industry" is, of course, the large number of people whose livelihoods depend on its success. This is an industry that rewards its talents well and those who prosper in it enjoy the adulation and trust of the masses. In addition, there are the hundreds of thousands of families who depend on the other, invisible workers in this industry: the publicists, the production crews, the runners, the staffs of publications that have performed as appendages of this "industry."

Beyond that, there are the millions who are truly entertained by our entertainment "industry." They could not imagine anything other than what this "industry" dishes out: it is cheap, it is accessible, it is glitzy, it is fabulous, and, from time to time, it throws money at the live audiences.

Also, it is so easy to dismiss the critiques of people from academe and the print media as mere grousing. The academe and print are, after all, dying institutions. They are going the way of the dinosaurs. The new communications technologies, and the easy reproduction and dissemination of cultural forms that they allow, have moved audiences away from print and public lectures and towards electronic receivers.

Conditions are therefore terribly adverse to a fundamental critique of our entertainment culture. But the recent tragedy at the Ultra gives us an opening to pick an argument with the entertainment industry, futile as that effort might seem.

Delusory as it might be, those who work in the print media are heirs to a heroic self-image. Print was the medium of social enlightenment in the previous centuries. Writers imagine their pens to be mightier than the sword and see themselves as bearers of a vital social function: the function of an intelligentsia that catalyzes issues, poses disturbing cultural questions and challenges authority.

Writers and other practitioners of the ancient arts see themselves as culture-bearers. Their work is supposed to outlive them; their significance is supposed to be more than momentary.

Those in the print medium trace the ancestry of their craft to the court philosophers.

The new generations of culture-workers flowing into the powerful multimedia industries are not burdened with that sort of angst over ancestry. They do not see it as their responsibility to be edifying to the popular culture or to educate the masses. Theirs is a craft of fleeting images and transient sentiments.

Those in the broadcast entertainment industry trace the ancestry of their craft to the court jesters. They are the babaylan and belly-dancers of the electronic world.

Any society’s intelligentsia is afflicted with an often beneficial messianic complex. They see themselves as possessing a longer view of things and aspire constantly to lengthen the horizon of their thought. They are bearers of how their society ought to think.

There is, to be sure, a large dose of elitism to that – something that is now frowned upon by demagogues who claim to speak of the "masses" and by populists who think that what people want is what they should dish out.

Those who work in the modern entertainment broadcast "industry" do not labor with the angst of having to be edifying. They see their art as uncovering what ticks for the largest number, which often requires a quest for the lowest common cultural denominator.

Theirs is not a quest to lift their society out of the morass of idiocy. Nor is it a crusade to build a nation’s character.

Their most significant audience are the advertisers who expect to reach the greatest number at the least cost. The most usual practical effect of that is to precisely reproduce idiocy and create a mass culture of mindless consumers of entertainment packages.

Number, not taste, is what matters in the ratings game. And, as we all know, there is a direct correlation between tastelessness and the scale of the audience.

To conceal the tastelessness of it all, dole-outs are repackaged as "charity." Slapstick humor is presented as "fun." And the belly-dancers are introduced as "artists" – those who are supposed to bring us cultural redemption.

The power of the entertainment "industry" as fabricator of the mass culture must not be underestimated. In our madly entertained country, that "industry" has supplied us our statesmen, provided us our lingua franca and, very often, dictated our fashions.

The irresponsible deployment of that power has, finally, produced an evident calamity (the damage to our tastes and perspectives have, for too long, not been as evident). That calamity gives all of us a moment of pause.

In this moment of pause, we might choose to examine the institutions, the economic drivers and the set of practices that determine the evolution of our popular culture in a manner so powerful they overwhelm the other potential co-creators of that culture.

Or, we may follow the path of least resistance and not indulge in cultural self-examination at all so that the moment passes and the opportunity for reform is lost.

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