In “The Collective Conscience of Reality Television: In a format without a code of conduct, viewers drive the limits of the exploitation and privacy invasions allowed onscreen” Serena Elavia writes that “What viewers will or won’t watch matters immensely to networks; in fact, they seem function as the networks’ sole ‘conscience.'” She’s right, and it’s a point too infrequently made: most of the cultural “problems” that the commentariat identifies arise because the audience responds to whatever the “problem” might be, whether it’s improbably hot and photoshopped models or reality TV or football or soda.
This is important because words like “society” or “the media” are actually shorthands for “the aggregated preferences of many, perhaps millions, of individuals.” You can’t really blame “society” for much of anything; you can at best blame the many individuals who hold and perpetuate beliefs or practices or whatever. “Conscience” is distributed, and it’s arguably becoming more distributed in the Internet age, when the means of discussions are (literally) at everyone’s fingertips. This blog is a good example of that principle in action.
Elavia’s point is also similar to one made by Brian Moody, the producer in Christopher Beha’s novel Arts & Entertainments. Towards the end of the novel he and Eddie, the everyman nebbish protagonist, discuss the nature of TV and, beneath that, the nature of God, and Moody says:
The audience has only way of expressing its interest—by watching. They might watch because they love you. They might watch because they hate you. They might watch because they’re sick. Doesn’t matter. Is that good or bad? The question doesn’t make any sense. Good is whatever the audience watches [. . . .] The audience is all there is [. . . .] I care about the audience, and I won’t defy them.
That last line, about how Moody “won’t defy” the audience, is scary because it implies he’ll do anything. Kill a man? If the audience wants it—and some dark corners of the Internet imply there is a market for murder. Moody is unsettling because he’ll do anything to anyone around him if the audience wills it. Most of us would like to imagine our friends, and even strangers, will not under any circumstances murder, torture, or rape us. Moody implies that in the right circumstances he would, or he would allow it to happen, almost as a form of worship.
Right now we don’t live in Moody’s world: as Elavia observes, producers only stop when audiences protest. Which raises a question: What happens if audiences don’t protest? That sort of question underlies books like The Hunger Games. Over time it may become more salient. Fiction and history teach us that we don’t really know what our neighbors and friends and strangers will do in real crises. Many, however, will indulge or release the darkness within.