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Oprah, Meghan, Harry, Pseudo-Events, and a Quick Fix to Boredom

Łukasz Muniowski

Abstract

The article uses the 2021 Oprah with Meghan and Harry television special as a case study to discuss pseudo-events and news cycles, which are represented as an antidote to boredom despite their lack of newsworthiness. I trace back today’s pseudo-events to the beginnings of the Graphic Revolution, during which news was transformed into a commodity, and its entertaining value gained major significance. As a result, the figure of the entertaining newsman has become more important than the relayed story. In response to the fear of boredom, which grips mass society, instead of only reporting current events, the media started making news, that is producing pseudo-events, which are planned and marketed. In order to explain this process, I discuss Oprah, a talk show giant, as a human pseudo-event and the main reason that 49.1 million watched the special.

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1. Introduction

1In this article, I want to discuss the Oprah with Meghan and Harry television special, which was prerecorded and aired globally in March of 2021. Without getting too much into its contents, I intend to show why an interview with two former royals, conducted by a famous media personality, is such an important cultural (pseudo-)event that its overall dullness, the inherent boredom of three people talking about distant, mostly irrelevant issues, stays hidden from the viewers. A staggering number of 17.1 million people in the US tuned in to watch it on March 7, 2021, its original air date. John Koblin describes the number as disappointing, considering that the “special aired after days of anticipatory coverage hinting at what the couple might reveal about their experiences with the royal family and their decision to leave the palace behind.” In my analysis of the way that the television special was advertised and presented, I want to highlight the boredom that the media and marketing machines try to fight by creating, elevating, and investing in such happenings. While the fight turns out to be in vain as boredom is contested with even more boredom, a lack of proper solutions fuels this cycle of futility. In agreement with Patricia Meyers Sparks’s statement that “boredom, examined, characteristically appears to mean something beyond itself” (x), I want to point out how the fear of boredom fuels the creation of programs that lead to the creation of further programs and news stories, allowing the media to fill the news cycle with various offspring of the main idea.

2The interview itself, carrying no important message and devoid of any deep meaning, is not an occurrence in need of mediation but a product itself, occurring because of the fear that the viewer might experience boredom. That is why while it would be tempting to categorize it as another instance of the spectacle, as understood by Guy Debord (1967), the fact that it was manufactured in order to be mediated and did not occur on its own, and the media recognized that its overall dullness could be compensated for only by proper packaging and marketing, prevents me from doing so. Instead, I intend to use Boorstin’s concept of the pseudo-event, which is inherently American, just like the television special that I discuss here. Oprah with Meghan and Harry is an extension of the cultural transformation that has been going on since the nineteenth century and resulted in the creation of television specials of questionable value and quality. David P. Marshall connects the two, stating that “while the nineteenth century produced a system of visibility that was dependent on the media technology of print, the twentieth century developed new systems of visibility through the media of radio, film, and television that produced corresponding mediatized identities” (17). These were made possible by the American media system, interested in covering and presenting powerful and influential individualities, regardless of how they have gained that power and how they are using their influences. As Teresa Keller observes, “in the United States, our basic philosophy is that if we err, we err on the side of freedom. Some television is trash, but we just have to grin and bear it” (204). My intention is not to question the quality of today’s television but to trace the historical developments and the way they were influenced by boredom.

3I will start with the creation of pseudo-events and the boredom––or rather the fear of it––that brought them into existence. Even though Boorstin coined the term in 1961, in response to the changing media landscape, it is still applicable today, as I intend to prove in this article. After providing the historical background, I will then write about the celebrity as a human pseudo-event. My focus will not fall on Meghan or Harry but on Oprah Winfrey, who conducted the interview and whose media company produced the interview. By doing that I will highlight another issue central to the contemporary media by trying to answer the question why the interviewer is just as important as the people who are interviewed and how it is supposed to guarantee that the interview itself will not be boring. By asking the right questions, Oprah, a talk show veteran of over thirty years, was supposed to make the interview engaging for viewers not familiar with the situation of the Duke of Sussex and his wife. In agreement with the paradoxical logic of celebrity hosts, if Oprah was speaking with them, they must be worthy of the viewers’ attention.

2. Pseudo-Events: Interviews and Talk Shows

  • 1 For an analysis of consumer boredom, see Mariusz Finkielsztein, “Consumer Boredom: Boredom as a Sub (...)

4The creation of the television special and the interest that it aroused––49.1 million viewers by March 9, 2021 (Pelski)––would not have been possible without the creation of mass society. Edward Shils identifies the process as determined by the move from authority to individuality, with more rights allowed to the latter (2). The move to mass society allowed the citizens more freedom, which is essential in making important life choices. Shils points out that “mass society is an industrial society” (2), which means it relies on producing goods––the basis of the industry’s existence. For production to make sense though, consumption becomes necessary, putting the consumer in the center of the economy. The reliance on constant production and instant consumption, instead of the overall quality of the product, as well as its longevity, leads to momentary gratification. The products appear on and disappear from the market with the same velocity, giving the consumers the impression that their decisions matter.1

5Hannah Arendt writes that “mass society and mass culture are interrelated phenomena” (43). In her essay “Society and Culture,” she attributes the creation of mass culture to the creation of mass society, basing the division between culture and mass culture on consumption. While society created culture to turn its products into commodities, mass society consumes them in search of instant entertainment, the same way it reached for “any other consumer goods” (46). This process occurrs in what Arendt refers to as “leftover time... after labor and sleep have received their due” (47). While still biological and “natural,” this vacant time is filled with easy-to-digest products, which “disappear in consumption” (48), fueling the creation of newer commodities to meet the demands of the consumer society. With more time available for idleness, one of the most urgent decisions of modern subjects was where to allocate the amount of time possible for leisure, making it either meaningful or not. There is no free time without labor. As Theodor Adorno points out, “free time is shackled to its opposite” (187), and “free time must not resemble work in any way whatsoever, in order, presumably, that one can work all the more effectively afterwards” (190). One of the activities made available due to the superfluous amount of free time is watching television, which Lars Svendsen directly connects with boredom:

People who watch TV four hours a day will not necessarily feel or admit that they are bored, but why else should they spend 25 per cent of their waking hours in such a way? Leisure naturally presents itself as an explanation, but leisure gives one a great deal of superfluous time that has to be consumed in some way or other – and few types of apparatus destroy time more efficiently than a TV. There is ultimately hardly any other reason for watching TV for many hours an evening than to get rid of time that is superfluous or disagreeable. (23)

6The same link is established by Sherryl Wilson, who writes that “popular culture becomes the antidote to a restless mobility, boredom and loneliness as individuals engage in a perpetual search for an escape from a debilitating ennui of contemporary life” (65).

7The demand for television may be equaled with what Boorstin calls the “demand for illusions” (9). What the viewers are looking for in their television programs is a sense of vacancy, allowing them to simply forget about the limitations imposed on them by the neoliberal economy and its social inequalities. The universal need for consumption is in agreement with the democratic nature of the programming itself, which, in turn, should serve as a unifying notion based on the familiarity of consumption. The commonness of needs and desires, however, rarely serves as a bridge between social groups or classes as some can afford to consume and others simply cannot. Yet, there is another universal feeling, which predates consumption and also does not bring people together but serves as the cause and reason for their actions. It functions as a common enemy, which can be defeated with similar means, access to which is also based on social and material position. That feeling is, naturally, boredom.

8Similarly to mass consumption, “boredom is a universal experience” (Toohey 169). People used various means to overcome it, but at least since the advent of modernity, consumption has been one of the most common remedies to boredom. Today’s consumerism does not revolve solely around material objects as with the rise of virtual currency, streaming services, and online versions of video games or movies––just to name a few technological developments––it becomes clear that one can also devour entertainment without any tangible material existence. This mechanism, however, is not unique to our era: it can be traced back to the beginnings of art, which brought with itself emotions and meanings whose impact went beyond the “transmitters” that were carrying it. As J. M. Bernstein points out:

Works of art are commodities just the same, indeed pure commodities since they are valuable only to the extent that they can be exchanged. Works’ non-utility, their ‘unsaleability’, is the hypocritical source of their value; the art market is pure because unconstrained by need. The culture industry’s inversion of this is its offering of culture goods, exhibitions or concerts on the television or radio, free of charge, as a ‘public service’; in truth, the price for them has been long-since paid for by the labouring masses. (10)

9Yet, as interesting as the journey back in time to trace the beginnings of boredom might turn out to be, taking into account the limitations of time, (writing) space, and the subject matter of this article, I will not go back further than to 1848, which is when the Associated Press was founded. It is precisely at this moment, according to that Boorstin, that the news began to turn into a “salable commodity” (13), which was possible thanks to the improvements made to the telegraph and the invention of the rotary press, allowing for the news to “travel” fast and go to print at a similar speed.

10This was also when newspapers went from simply retelling events to fighting for the attention of the reader, which could be caught with “images of print, of men and landscapes and events, of the voices of men and mobs” (Boorstin 13). Boorstin calls these changes the Graphic Revolution, in which “vivid image came to overshadow pale reality” (13). In other words, fiction overshadowed the truth when looking more promising and was ingrained into the social fabric despite being false. No medium was impacted by these changes more than television. Walter Cummins and George Gordon write that “even if television were not the primary cause of change, it has served as the messenger and supporter of ideas and movements,” both intentionally and unintentionally (ix). It was instrumental for many social and cultural developments that continue to shape our era.

11The availability of television sped up the process of news reporting, and, as Boorstin notices, soon “news gathering turned into news making” (14). This, in turn, influenced the creation of pseudo-events, fabricated to fill up the news cycle. The main characteristics of a pseudo-event are that it is not spontaneous but planned (1); that it is produced for the sole purpose of being reported or reproduced (2), is open to interpretation (3), and is a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (4) in the sense that it is announced prior to its appearance (11–12). It is hard to treat pseudo-events as news, precisely because of their pre-prepared nature. As observed by Boorstin: “the story prepared ‘for future release’ acquires an authenticity that competes with that of the actual occurrences on the scheduled date” (19). This means that, judging from almost every news edition, a prerecorded event may be just as much newsworthy and may seem as authentic as current events.

12What is more, “pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events in geometric progression” as “pressures arise to produce other, derivative forms of pseudo-event which are more fluid, more tantalizing, and more interestingly ambiguous” (Boorstin 33). This means that such an occurrence may be recycled for a week or so, with media experts discussing various moments from such an event, (presumably) adding context and depth to selected elements of the show. This usually goes on until another story appears or is created, only for the whole process to be repeated around a different narrative. Such is the case with sports stories concerning whether a given player will move to a different team or not, which reappear during every trade deadline. The ability to come up with such news cycles time and time again is related not only to the attractiveness of the occurrences at hand but also to the journalist telling the story. As Boorstin points out, “the successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civil war.” “If he cannot find a story, then he must make one––by the questions he asks of public figures,” he continues, summing up the talk show formula (8).

13Boorstin identifies the interview as one of the simplest, if not the most primitive, pseudo-events. Rather than looking at the interview as a means of gathering information or conducting methodological research, Boorstin is interested in the rise of the figure of the contemporary newsman, which creates confusion as to “who is the history, and who is the historian?” (30). Since the 1960s, the work of the reporter is no longer based on simply relaying the facts but also on doing it in an entertaining way. The stress on entertainment in the way news is conveyed leads to competition, which is the basis of the free market economy. The reporters are “free to speculate on the facts, to bring new facts into being.... Our ‘free market place of ideas’ is a place where people are confronted by competing pseudo-events and are allowed to judge among them” (Boorstin 35).

14The rising popularity of interviews and interviewers gave birth to the talk show, a television formula in which the guests talk with a new incarnation of the reporter––the host. Wilson writes that talk shows escape categorization due to “the persona of the host who facilitates the proceedings and the relationship they engender with their studio guests and audiences” (17). This only furthers the notion that the host is more important than the guests: the people tune in to hear the questions and the retorts instead of actually learning something from or about the person invited to the show. Most talk shows follow the same format, which “requires invited guests to disclose the most intimate aspects of themselves, recalling past and present difficulties and revealing often horrific life experiences to the camera, studio and home audiences for close scrutiny and judgement” (2). One of the most prominent figures in talk show history is Oprah Winfrey, who hosted The Oprah Winfrey Show for twenty-three seasons, from September 1986 to May 2011. She achieved fame and wealth despite her difficult beginnings. Nicole Aschoff writes that Winfrey is the embodiment of the American Dream as she “presents her personal journey and metamorphosis from a poor little girl in rural Mississippi to a billionaire prophet as a model for overcoming adversity” (80). She has built her brand on talking with people about their problems and helping them overcome their issues in front of cameras and studio audiences. As revered as Winfrey is, it is particularly notable that she achieved such a position in the media landscape, abolishing the divisions between highbrow and lowbrow entertainment.

3. Oprah: The Human Pseudo-Event

15It is a common concept that one achieves almost universal recognition when one can be referred to solely by her/his/their first name. “Oprah” is one of those people, and, according to the title of the television special, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle should be as well. It is, however, due to Winfrey’s name being put in front of the other two that the viewer learns about the significance of the television special. This gives her power, unachievable for either “Meghan” or “Harry,” painting them as add-ons to her show. Even though Prince Harry is a royal and Markle a famous actress, it is the former talk show host that emerges here as the central figure. It is Winfrey who is supposed to guarantee authenticity and honesty due to the reputation that she has built through the years.

16The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have stepped down as senior members of the British Royal Family, meaning they have given up all their official functions. By doing that, they have renounced some of their power, but not all of it as they remain celebrities: figures who are not considered to be culturally relevant, yet whose power cannot be denied. As David P. Marshall points out, “celebrity has become a way to identify public visibility but also underlines how that visibility itself is not an achievement or clear accomplishment” (16). It is not, however, that celebrity is devoid of power, which is also recognized by Marshall: “genealogically, there is a second element that links celebrity to power: celebrity identifies a very elaborate and expanding discourse of visibility and recognition. What is developed through celebrities is a rather new and contemporary system of value” (17). In this case, the special was a way of sparking interest in the production company of the interviewees, Archewell Productions, which signed deals to produce content for Netflix and Spotify.

17Barry Smart connects the rise of celebrity culture with the demand for illusions, placing it historically after the First World War, when American soldiers returned home from Europe and found themselves lost in everyday life after encountering the horrors of war. This led to what Smart refers to as “celebrity-fabricating” by the film, the radio, and the mass-circulating magazines (3). The process of fabrication is a direct consequence of the Graphic Revolution which, as Boorstin points out, “gave us, among other things, the means of fabricating well-knownness” (47). This led to the creation of celebrities, whom Boorstin distinguishes from heroes, considered as such due to their achievements. He writes that “the hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name” (61). The name then allowed for the creation of the brand myth, allowing celebrities to become brands and sell products by pure association.

18Winfrey is well aware of her status, using her influence to promote her most important brand––herself, managing to connect conflicting discourses because of the impression of authenticity that she so successfully projected in her talk shows and extended to her magazine and production company. She turned her life story into a device of making herself more familiar to her viewers, purposely becoming the central figure of the show. Wilson writes that “all of the voices heard on the show, and the form that their articulations take, are facilitated by and filtered through the persona of Oprah Winfrey, whose own authority resides in her life experiences, her struggles to overcome difficulties and in the notion of authenticity signaled through her practice of adopting the confessional position” (157). Winfrey listens, inspires, and gives life advice. She is now famous and wealthy, yet her rags-to-riches story allows Winfrey to position herself as an authority figure and one of the people at the same time. Wilson writes that “the Oprah as celebrity other is simultaneously Oprah as ‘one of us’ thus providing a bridge between the audience and the stars, including Winfrey herself” (162). By becoming familiar to the audience, she makes her story attainable, her life within reach, ignoring the circumstances that stood behind her rise to fame. In Oprah’s story, the American Dream is available for everyone: if one fails, it is because of not working hard enough or doing things one is not supposed to do (Aschoff 100). The ultimate goal is happiness, presumably well within reach of every viewer and member of the audience.

19In her version of the American Dream, Oprah made generosity a central part of her brand. Winfrey is famous for giving away things during her live shows as well as building schools in the US and abroad through the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. She is also a millionaire and the founder of Harpo Productions, her own media company. By all accounts, she can be a role model, a label that she willingly took on and built her brand around it. What made Oprah so successful was her personality, which Boorstin equals with celebrity, calling the two synonyms (65). Celebrities do not perform any vital social function; their existence is justified solely due to mass society’s need to be entertained, meaning as long as they are entertaining, they are not replaced by another fabricated well-known person. In order to remain that, they need to organize pseudo-events to remain in the spotlight. This is exactly what Oprah does whenever she opens a new school or conducts a new interview––everything is planned in advance, spawning the creation of new pseudo-events, earning her the dubious status of a human pseudo-event.

20The same mechanism also applies to the television special, which was prepared by Oprah’s media company. She has been friends with Markle, attending the 2018 Royal Wedding as her guest, and later on, teamed up with Prince Harry to produce a program for Apple TV+. The close ties with the Royals allowed her to prepare the program, but more importantly, it was her exemplary reputation as a talk show host that made Meghan and Harry decide to take part in the special. As Wilson points out, “talk shows are cheap television, attract good viewing figures and represent a sound financial proposition for producers” (19). Yet, Oprah’s special was far from “a sound financial proposition” as CBS paid Harpo Productions around $7–9 million for exclusive rights to the special in the US. They invested so much because Winfrey is a brand that guarantees ratings, while her relationship with Markle made it certain that she and her husband would be able to present their side of the story.

21This, in turn, led to a boring, unrevealing special, which was discussed all over the world due to unabated interest in the lives of celebrities. Because her talk show has been on the air for 24 years, it is evident that Winfrey knew––and still knows––how to produce gripping television, sticking to proven formulas. Elizabeth Legge writes that “artistic techniques of boredom include repetition and postponement of a conclusion or inconclusion” (96). That means that shows are prolonged or broken up by commercial breaks in order for them to last longer, which oftentimes has the opposite effect––the frustration with the length of a show/series leads to boredom, which results in resignation. Repetition and postponement of conclusions are also the key features of successful television programs as the first leads to the creation of captivating formulas, which allow for better consumption of said programs, while the postponement of conclusions allows the topic to be discussed on different platforms until a new one appears. That is why Meghan and Harry’s reluctance to actually share anything of essence despite the two-hour length of the interview, providing the media with just enough talking points to continue discussing the program, and creating various pseudo-events in the process, was in agreement with the expectations regarding pseudo-events themselves.

22Doreen St. Felix of the New Yorker called the 2021 television special “the instantly iconic artifact of pop culture,” while also taking notice of how carefully, yet somewhat strangely, the whole program was constructed. Understandably, the former Duke and Duchess of Sussex picked Oprah to manage the two-hour special, which placed her in the familiar role of the “celebrity other.” As Loren Glass observes in her discussion of the recommendations from Oprah’s Book Club, “Oprah not only represented mass cultural acclaim, her show also reinforced the association between such acclaim and the predominantly female readership to which she catered” (53). In a similar way, the special itself was directed at female viewers, discussing issues such as motherhood, depression, and racism. Furthermore, a larger part of the interview involved just Winfrey and Markle, with Prince Harry serving as an add-on even when the three were holding a conversation. While commendable and refreshing, the female perspective has been chosen to provide more talking points for pundits rather than to deepen social awareness about the discussed issues. Motherhood, depression, and racism have been covered numerous times in Oprah’s talk show as well as in the programs her company produced. It is safe to say that she knows her public and knows how to address it.

4. Conclusion

23Oprah’s rise to fame as well as the 2021 television special result from the fear of boredom that fuels the creation of pseudo-events. In Winfrey’s case, that means repeating the same, uninspired formulas over and over, during every similar event, turning it, somewhat paradoxically, into a showcase of boredom. Oprah herself may be characterized as a human pseudo-event because of her ability to produce such occurrences one after another, an ability which she acquired through almost four decades of work in the media. Pseudo-events are not spontaneous as they are produced in advance and may be interpreted, reported on, or reproduced at will. Oprah with Meghan and Harry television special is exactly that––a pseudo-event produced in the middle of a global pandemic, as billions of people are living in fear of getting infected, just to redirect their attention to something presumably more newsworthy, which, nevertheless, does not influence their lives. The interview could have been a welcome distraction from the tragedy of the everyday if it would be in fact its purpose. Instead, for most viewers, it was impossible to relate to the revealing of personal issues of the rich in a time when everyday activities, such as going to a store or walking the dog, suddenly became life-threatening occurrences.

24My intention was not to comment on the contents of the television special but rather to highlight how it is another in a series of pseudo-events, created in response to boredom, available to societies rich enough to afford leisure. It falls in line with Donald Trump rallies, publication of some unearthed documents, or basically every event concerning non-fungible tokens. Boorstin notices that “we are deceived and obstructed by the very machines we make to enlarge our vision” (259), by devoting our attention to pseudo-events, which are fabricated only to make us forget about our living conditions and/or fuel our consumption. While the fact that Meghan Markle brought up depression was important, as it started another public debate about mental health, the interview itself was produced in the name of finding a quick fix for boredom, which may creep at us at any time.

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Bibliography

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Notes

1 For an analysis of consumer boredom, see Mariusz Finkielsztein, “Consumer Boredom: Boredom as a Subliminal Mood of Consumer Capitalism” in this issue.

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References

Electronic reference

Łukasz Muniowski, Oprah, Meghan, Harry, Pseudo-Events, and a Quick Fix to BoredomEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-4 | 2022, Online since 26 December 2022, connection on 27 January 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/19125; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.19125

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About the author

Łukasz Muniowski

Łukasz Muniowski is an Assistant Professor at the University of Szczecin. He has published over a dozen of academic articles on various topics, including gentrification, geek culture, American literature, video games, and television series. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020) and co-editor (with Aldona Kobus) of Sex, Death and Resurrection in Altered Carbon: Essays on the Netflix Series (McFarland, 2020). In 2021, Lexington Books published his monograph Narrating the NBA: Cultural Representations of Leading NBA Players after the Michael Jordan Era. His newest book, Sixth Men: NBA History off the Bench was published by McFarland in 2021.

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