Monday, December 11, 2006

Prolegomena to a Phenomenology of Romanian Mass Media (Just Kidding)

According to the media, every day STUFF (initially called "shit" throughout this article) happens during these never-ending transition times. That is, unless Romanian teams are involved in international football games, when "stuff", like a huge djinny looming large over us, suddenly enters the game and all the imaginable details that surround it, as if it were sucked back into its proverbial bottle. If the international football leagues were re-designed so as to have non-stop competitions and if a sizable portion of the coming European structural funds were poured into Romanian soccer teams, then the whole country might sink into -- or rise to -- some Scandinavian-type daily blissful routine in the running of its other affairs. That would be an excellent excessive-latin-spirit-sucking-device; I might patent it under the brand "Latirin" (from Ritalin, for those who don't get enough pharmaceutical spam.)

Anyway, so every day stuff happens, and on all TV channels the usual media heads are chatting about it. I'm not sure to this day why in Romania, which is an OK country in terms of human potential, just a handful of individuals get rotated like mad on all locally produced TV programs.

This may be an effect of the communist era when, in the 80's, people had access to a single TV channel during as little as two hours of programming every night. Under those circumstances, there was no chance to develop a considerable pool of TV stars. So maybe the Romanian collective TV consciousness was molded around a tight number of people whom it can accept on its screens. That would be my noble, idealistic and compassionate view.

So it's either that, or... Could it be cheaper for the TV stations that way? Because I forgot to mention the huge number of hours that each channel's "anchors" are supposed to be spending every day facing the nation.

As a result, watching Romanian TV is like watching a bunch of hamsters doing their... thing. Hamsters don't get very creative. We look at them because they're cute, strangely hypnotic and mildly therapeutic with their exercise wheel routines. So it is with Romanian TV, minus the cuteness and the therapeutic effect. Actually, little do I know about the secret lives of hamsters, maybe they do compete for the "eyeballs", or the "hearts and minds" of innocent humans and they make statistics and ratings and calculate their brand power in their sick itty-bitty brains. It's hard to trust anyone these days, let alone a rodent.

Normally, these overworked TV hosts call to their rescue "guests": journalists, political figures and miscellaneous... let's call them (as they actually might even call themselves) "media consultants". But you'd think that at least at this level you get some variety. Nope. The same professional guests (PGs) do the rounds. I mean, as you zap, you see PG1 on TV1, while PG2 is on TV2, PG3 on TV3, etc. One hour later, PG3 is on TV1, PG1 is on TV2, etc. And sometimes TV hosts do extra time as guests on each other's shows.

Thus, in theory, it is quite possible for someone who wants to spend a doubtful quality evening watching several talk shows on different topics, to see the same four hamster-people all afternoon and evening -- while ZAPPING! Ain't that something? Then the viewer gets to feel like a hamster, too, his or her remote powering the exercise wheel. It's an endearing picture, really: hamsters looking at each other, through the wheel rungs, in stroboscopic redundancy, each thinking he/she is smarter. It keeps people off the streets all over the globe, if you think about it. (But I digress, thought the typing hamster and pressed "enter")

There is a problem with this system of scarcity and recycling, and in winter it becomes supremely obnoxious: with bad weather, traffic in Bucharest often grinds to a halt... And the guests who couldn't make it from one TV station to another are being called in on their mobile phones, and in between the issues at stake we get real time traffic reports, complete with traffic noises and frequent interruptions - very dramatic indeed. While some think it's just frustrating and unprofessional.

And that's because TV stations have not foreseen the problems raised by their "frequent guest programs". (By the way, do PGs get some type of mileage? They definitely should be issued magnetic fidelity cards by each TV station.) Otherwise, you'd think they would have huddled together in the same building, or at least the same neighborhood. But it's not to late: if they were to move their tiny talk show studios into the enormous House of Parliament, that would solve everything, because then all political guests would be just a few steps away, too. Plus, how bad can traffic get on those marble corridors? I say huddle all media hamsters in the same cage, it saves energy and reduces pollution.

If you think that kind of television might as well be called visual radio, you're right. I have friends who record the TV shows they're interested in as MP3s. Why bother with talking heads one sees more often than their friends and family, and moreover, who might not even be in the studio for viewers to admire their new shirts or hairstyles?

But let's get back to the issue of stuff happening. Now we may define several types of stuff:

- regular stuff (RS)-- your daily helping, matters over which people have strong opinions and uphold them, and on TV your usual hamsters are doing just fine debating them over and over again;

- important stuff (IS)-- this kind might even make one want to read a newspaper online the next day, because one's usual opinions may be slightly challenged. The usual hamsters get into heated arguments, and international examples get quoted a lot -- we try to learn from others' experience how to deal with this, when there are no downright European commandments that may be invoked, which would graciously end all discussion.

- very weird stuff (VWS)-- this is the worst kind -- this is the kind of stuff people are not sure what to think about, and it's so localized, so... Romanian in its essence that watching what people do in other countries is futile -- just trying to find similar circumstances is a headache. The overarching topic of my article (because there is one, trust me) is precisely this type of very weird stuff, of accidental, random, if any universal value. In a VWS case, the nation is on its own. The stuff in itself may be more or less important, per se, but its occurrence marks a turning point, or at least defines a trend... It is, in short, the kind of stuff that makes Romanians be Romanians, the stuff that defines the nation and shapes the very "Romanian weirdness of being", to paraphrase Kundera quite creatively, if I may say so myself.

VWS is quite exciting on Romanian media and I'd venture to say that it happens quite often. Romanians have a talent to bring it up. And they are becoming experts and manufacturing it themselves, they no longer wait for chance or the European integration-related issues to spark it up.

They are actually hooked on this VWS, as a nation. They love to define themselves, to gaze at the national navel, to compare notes occasionally, to re-read into their own past things that might have escaped them during the communist period. They are indeed a very narcissistic people and they indulge in this pastime maybe more than the healthy amount, but while I'm writing these very words, I'm falling into the national sin, and I love every minute of it.

Well, what do you think that 90% of this nation's educated people over 40 do when faced with VWS moments?

Because, believe it or not, sadly, these guys have a cookie-cutter SOLUTION!

(Hint: yeaH, tHey turn to someone (or his close friends). And if it sounds like a cult, wHy, tHere are plenty of elements of tHat in tHere, built and maintained carefully over tHe years.)