Reaction to the Obama TV program has been revealing. On the one hand it was described on MSNBC immediately following as slick and professional. On the other hand, it didn’t take us to our emotional depths–not exactly feel good, merely feel better–said Tom Shales. He wrote that it relied on stories of real people and was absent facts and figures.
I wonder, however, if the critics represent the attitudes of the audience. It’s beyond comprehension to me that anyone would criticize “slick and polished” production values. We live in an image rich culture and we expect high production values. Even in a YouTube culture, it’s second nature to expect polished production if you’re attempting to influence an audience.
And what, exactly, would be an alternative–shooting out of focus, not using a tripod and waving the camera around the room, not setting the white balance so the color is off? We accept amateur footage when tourists capture an incoming hurricane or we are watching sensational chase footage from the police cruiser, but we don’t accept it when we watch a sports event or an inspirational story on Oprah.
We are programmed to expect quality and lack of quality leads us to question the veracity of the content. So the issue isn’t merely one of production value, it’s also about believability.
As for the use of the stories of everyday people struggling against economic hardship and lack of health care, my hunch is these stories resonated with the audience because they are authentic. Who did not grasp the pathos of a 72-year-old retiree returning to work at Walmart in order to afford arthritis medication for his wife, or the desperation inherent in the story of a father who defers leg surgery in order to continue to provide food and shelter for his family?
These are people with whom we can identify because they’re going through the same things we are. The stories were not maudlin, did not overstate the heroism of the individual struggle, nor manipulate us emotionally. The producers could have done so but they refrained from taking us there. I suspect the audience is adept enough to see through emotional manipulation via the media anyway.
One commentator remarked the program–he called it an infomercial, which is a telling descriptor in itself because it implies the only frame we have to describe an informational television program is that it’s a commercial enterprise–was absent facts and figures. That is only partially accurate. There were facts and figures, but they were minimized and it’s understandable. Television is ill-equipped to present facts and figures in a compelling way and well-equipped to tell stories.
Television relies on images and storylines to convey information. Depending on how you assess it, this is either a strength or a flaw. But however it’s assessed, the fact remains the medium has inherent strengths and weaknesses and television’s strength is the ability to tell stories that evoke emotion.
Having produced a fair amount of television and video, I listened to the critiques with bemusement. One commentator said the program was carefully constructed and meticulously edited to tell Obama’s story, as if this were sinister. I kept coming back to my days as a producer. I’ve sat in an editing room and worked and re-worked an edit quite literally frame by frame to achieve an out point that worked visually and was so transparent it did not call attention to itself and get in the way of the story. Was this manipulative, calculated and sinisterly meticulous?
Or was it just an attempt to tell the story well, ensuring that the message got precedence over the flaws in the medium itself? Is it sinister to work hard to tell the story well? I don’t think so. It demonstrates respect for the viewer and for the story content.
Obama used the medium effectively and with finesse. John McCain also has a compelling story to tell. I can imagine as a producer how that story might be told with integrity and veracity had he not despoiled his image with the shameful tactics employed by his campaign.
If there is an assessment to be made about how television was used in a political campaign, it should be that Obama used the medium well to set a context, demonstrated how he would address the problems rooted in that context and told his own story. Conversely, imagine what an evening it would have been had we been treated to an equally compelling presentation by John McCain laying out a vision for the future, setting a context as he sees it, and reminding us of his remarkable story.