Would anyone like to make a sporting bet that Germaine Greer is kicking herself for unloading her vitriol on Steve Irwin’s barely-cold corpse when, if she had waited a matter of days, she could have laid into the critically injured body of Richard Hammond? Considering the macho tenor of his show Top Gear, she could have dressed such an attack up as feminism and so contributed something to the movement besides her recent call to pederasty. What a crop of boys being boys and tragedy ensuing we’ve been having for television lately.
The wildly popular show Hammond co-hosted for the BBC, Top Gear, is great television. For a feminist who doesn’t drive or have a television, it was a miracle of production genius that the twenty-seven objectified-Pirelli-Girl featuring minutes of a Top Gear I saw at a friend’s house meant anything to me, let alone entertained me. But it assuredly did. In some television contexts, long shots of beautifully pneumatic women interspersed with car assembly/racing/breathless semi-sexual description make sense.
Steve Irwin, unwatchable as I found him and hard as I laughed at South Park’s parody of his animal anal manipulations, also made television that made sense. Thousands of viewers developed a new relationship with the grosser, more forbidding animal species, which probably did conservation efforts some good. Top Gear, if anything, makes more sense. Exciting wet-dream cars and suggestions of the macho culture that goes along with them are interspersed with demonstrations of middle-class market models. The combination brings in a wide audience, including thousands of self-respecting women, who get useful consumer information and are amused in the process.
Despite Irwin’s and Hammond’s shows making sense and being helpful, good television, tragedy has struck twice in almost as many weeks. How? Who do we blame for what has happened to these men?
Media parasites like Greer crawled out of the woodwork to point the finger at the body when Irwin died and more will probably come out now. Irwin, the rant will run, died out of his own ambitious yobbishness, but at least he had a cause. Hammond, however, wasn’t helping anything except his own pocketbook, and in the process encouraged unsafe driving, dismissive representations of women – well, I’ll let the people who want to make such arguments think up more themselves. But if Hammond survives the accident, he will live to survive such censure.
Here’s the problem, though. Irwin and Hammond both had spectacularly stupid jobs and obviously made a poor decision in taking them, and the people who love them the most may have a hard time forgiving them for that. But we – the viewers, who enjoyed the context of their shows – we’re the ones who gave them their spectacularly stupid jobs. In a very practical, direct sense we pay the salaries for those jobs, because advertisers measure how much we watch such shows and buy ad time accordingly. Make no mistake. We aren’t television’s customers; we’re television’s commodity and at the same time its director.
One doesn't measure a television channel’s success by its number of viewers; one measures the quantity of ad revenue generated in an effort to reach viewers. Television networks make every effort to get huge numbers of viewers with specific spending patterns – those who are likely to travel abroad, for example, or those in the market for a new car. They go to absurd lengths coming up with the exact programming to please us and draw us in. They spend millions of dollars a year on hundreds of pilots they’ll discard overnight if it doesn’t engage the right demographic. Once the channel has the right viewers, it ‘sells’ them to the companies who purchase advertising time on their programmes.
Seen from that perspective – which, I assure you from industrial experience, is the perspective television executives and media buyers see it from – we the viewers are very powerful people. Powerful enough to give Steve Irwin and Richard Hammond the spectacularly stupid jobs that now cause their families so much pain. We enjoyed the events that led up to their tragedies the same way Romans enjoyed gladiatorial combat; we created the market that encouraged them to ever greater foolishness. But where the Romans took advantage of the gladiators’ slave status, we’ve taken advantage of Irwin’s and Hammond’s media ambitions and recklessness.
We haven’t stopped there. We watch reality shows by the dozen featuring progressively more outlandish or dangerous tasks performed by non-professionals. We scorn the people who appear on them and mock their obviously overweening desire for fame, but we give them that fame and so encourage others to chase it. First Irwin, now Hammond; inevitably someone will be seriously hurt or killed making one of the more extreme reality shows and no doubt we’ll be quick to condemn them for their own tragedy too. And probably have to hear to what Germaine Bloody Greer thinks she has to say about it.
Alternatively, we could embrace the power that we have over the television market and stop using it for cheap vicarious thrills. But then we might have to, god forbid, read a book or talk to our loved ones or something while network executives desperately search for something to broadcast that doesn’t involve people being seriously hurt or worse. In the meantime, we could do the families of Irwin and Hammond a favour by thinking of the pain they’re going through and not loudly blaming their men for the tragedies our voyeurism pushed them to.