PRINT September 1986



CERTAIN SONGS HAVE A KIND of hook that coaxes us into a hazily pleasurable looplike riff between nostalgia and futurology. Certain magazines have a kind of hook that couples a seemingly endless variety of sameness with a trashy veneer of the unbelievable. From The National Enquirer to its upscale relations People and Us, these publications emit a relentlessly ridiculous yet compelling rendition of information and its relationship to “celebrity.” This magazine format has also invaded television, emerging in the form of newslike presentations and life-style shows. The most persistently visible examples of the genre, and not coincidentally those with the biggest hooks and the most juice, are Entertainment Tonight and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which light up American homes with their baroquely unbridled reports from the end of the rainbow.

While Entertainment Tonight focuses on the processes of production and the business of show business, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous sloppily paddles through the extremities of reward, through the acquisitions that accumulate after the deals are made, the public delivers its verdict, or the family delivers its inheritance. Bellowing at the top of his lungs, Robin Leach dominates the proceedings with his sideshow bark and his “If this is Tuesday it must be Belgium” travel agenda. Rushing from Wayne Newton’s lavish spread to Adnan Khashoggi’s birthday party to Valerie Perrine’s jaunt through the South of France, Leach lets the audience in on the stuff they will never forget: that money can buy you love, and that the best things in life are never free.

Like Dynasty and Dallas, Lifestyles works hard to delineate the difference between having and having not, but television’s penchant for evacuating meanings and roughing up the mechanics of transference and identification plays havoc with the viewer’s actual positioning. We can observe the proceedings with distanced amusement, giggling at its excesses and possibly resisting its almost undeclinable invitations. Or we can project madly into the melee, perhaps believing that if we use the right bubble bath or drive the right car, then poof we’re Alexis or Adnan. Through these tenacious transmissions, voyeurism’s rewards are presented not as ditzy fabulations but as the real stuff of our lives. Convincing us that seeing is not only believing but becoming, Lifestyles’ flamboyant flaunting of baubles and bucks seems to efface rather than enhance the difference between rich and not. So, after a hard day’s work, couch potatoes are snappily transformed into duchesses and dreamboats as the hard reality of our everyday labor (or lack of it) is handily dematerialized . Everybody’s an executive adrift in their own inner space, suctioned up by the powerful seductions of managerial power and perks.

Entertainment Tonight breaks down this seduction a bit by focusing on the work that paves the way for reward and on the actual mechanics of profit and loss. Perched on contempo chairs that float in a space that resembles a black hole furnished by Conran’s, the duo in charge (Robb Weller and Mary Hart on weekdays, Weller and Leeza Gibbons on weekends) spout a tidy continuum of juiced-up reportage. From a relatively detailed accounting of the government’s attempt to curtail the distribution of critical documentary films to the latest industry gossip on Mike the dog’s next career move, the presentation zigzags wildly between earnest liberal exhortation and fan-mag gush . But framing this narrative lowdown is a constant numerical barrage of box office statistics, celebs’ birthdays, and audience demographics, which , although informational in their foregrounding of market valuations and career longevity soon become, through their perky yet trancelike recitation, almost pataphysical if not downright otherworldly. If Lifestyles cultivates the rich terrain of the spectators’ inner space, then perhaps Entertainment Tonight is claiming the turf of numerical capital as its outer space. Could it be just a coincidence that Weller, Hart, and Gibbons affectionately allude to their cozy little mother ship as “ET”?

Unlike Lifestyles’ frenzied myopia, “ET”’s long view goes a short way to expose the underpinnings of America’s love affair with power and celebrity But these meager efforts are hardly enough to break the spell. Together with Lifestyles’ and Leach’s newest entry, Fame, Fortune and Romance, Entertainment Tonight reminds its viewers to sit back, relax, and live the fantasy—to blast off into an outer and inner space where living well is the best revenge.

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes. Her column on television appears regularly in Artforum.