There has been a minor tremor in the media and political world as the ratings for Megyn Kelly’s new show on NBC continue to decline. Kelly was the much lauded and admired host of an evening chat show on Fox News that garnered the network’s second highest ratings (behind the new departed and disgraced Bill O’Reilly). Amid the controversy over the treatment of female employees at Fox News by male executives and eager to make a name for herself outside the narrow world of cable news, Kelly left a big payday at Fox to begin a new chapter in her career at NBC. Ostensibly, Kelly would transcend her traditional role as a younger and more polished presenter (as compared to the cartoonish demeanor of Sean Hannity and grumpy-old-man vibe of O’Reilly) of conservative takes on the day’s issues and become a reporter and news presenter of genuine mass appeal along the lines of Katie Couric or Connie Chung of past media ages.
Yet something seemed to happen on the way to infotainment immortality. Kelly’s ratings for her Sunday evening show, which were solid at first due to a scoop interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have now plummeted to below most other network rivals (including the somehow-still-on-the-air inane-fest America’s Funniest ((and most likely Staged)) Home Videos). Conservative commentators celebrated what appeared to be her just karmic desserts for being down on the campaign of Donald Trump and her apparent abandonment of Fox News. Indeed, a recent rumor suggested that Kelly had been fired by NBC for the low ratings—an allegation made plausible by the fate of Greta Van Sustern, who like Kelly, left Fox News forNBC and was promptly fired after six months when her news/talk show floundered.
What explains such difficult and fatal transitions for news celebrities who just months before looked to be surging to glorious career heights? The answer explored here lies in one of the themes of this space—the spectacle of disintegration—and the lack of understanding of how it operates. To briefly review, the spectacle of disintegration is McKenzie Wark’s updating of Guy Debord’s classic notion of the spectacle he laid out in 1968 in The Society of the Spectacle. Debord argued that industrial capitalism had developed to a point where its most important product was not merely the material objects produced in factories, but the images, lifestyles and fantasies created alongside these products to sell, market, advertise, brand and promote them. This process began at the beginning of the 20th century and advanced to a point by the late 1960s that human beings no longer experience any kind of authentic existence of life but merely went through a set of pre-choreographed rituals centered around the consumption of these heavily marketed products. While individual life devolved into a hallow charade of conformity, a small cadre of government and corporate elites benefited enormously from this consumer environment and went to great lengths to protect it. This regime of protection Debord detailed in a later work called Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, where he discusses, among other things, the reasons why governments might wish to hype the threat of terrorism (to give the passive consumer audiences something to fear and to delight when the state ostensibly appears to defeat it and make the world safe to shop in again). This later phenomenon Debord called The Integrated Spectacle as it combined both the consumerism of the west with the authoritarianism of the east during the Cold War.
Recently, with the develop of social media capabilities and a series of legitimacy crises with the prevailing financial/consumerist order, a new kind of spectacle has emerged. This new variation McKenzie Wark dubbed The Spectacle of Disintegration and it features the same basic components of media imagery, mass consumption, and expressions of military strength but is no longer controlled by a central command structure of dominant media institutions, hegemonic western states, and global corporations and banks. Instead, the development of social media has allowed the masses who were passive consumers of the spectacle (and did not hesitate to fatten themselves up on its fat and sugar) to make their own contributions to this spectacle—so much so that the struggle to constantly feed the masses hungry for ever newer and grander content could be “outsourced” to these same consumers. They would make endless hours of content of themselves singing and dancing and writing fan fiction and posting comments and sharing their most intimate thoughts, feelings, ideas, desires and fantasies into cheap web cameras that would be devoured by their fellow consumers. Media owners and operators would charge rent on the bandwidth and get rich in the process. Everybody wins.
Yet a handful of unforeseen developments transpired. The prevailing assumption among many of these web platform developers was that the masses would share the inanity of their daily lives with the world and not use these platforms for anything that might threaten the status quo. So long as the tranquilized masses did nothing but share cat pictures and take “Which Sex and the City Character Are You”-style quizzes, there was nothing to fear from the new media platforms. Indeed, such information that consumers shared with the world could be aggregated and analyzed to steer them toward similar content. Yet it turned out the masses weren’t all as inane as they seemed. Some used media platforms to promote certain ideologies and activism from a variety of perspectives. Like minded communities quickly congealed and were able to make significant impacts in the so-called “real world.” Eventually, these communities constructed their own smaller media content production points and distributions networks. These on-line platforms linked up with traditional media outlets on television and radio to create information and image ecosystems were an individual could enter and have all other bits of data deflected by out into the ether. The scale of this filtering wasn’t merely taking place at the broad level of clichéd debates of “the left vs. the right,” but could function at a very micro-level. Conspiracy theorists who insisted the US government staged the 9-11 attacks had their own micro-universe of documentaries, academic studies, podcasts, panel discussions posted on-line, interviews, and just about every other form of information conveyance within an all-but-hermetically-sealed media cage. Millions of consumers would enter these cages when they interfaced with a computer or smart phone and never left—and have no intention or desire to leave.
Wark gives this phenomenon the name of the spectacle of disintegration because each of these micro-ecosystems represents a small chunk of what was once an integrated and coherent informational whole into a multitude of self-contained universes. Like a worm, these chopped off segments are now growing into their own organisms and are not under any central control from the original organism. The structure has disintegrated, but rather than collapse into a rubble of component parts, it grows into something that no one knows how to control. This is why events like the election of Donald Trump have transpired and the dominant institutions of media, state, and corporation are at loss to explain and control it. What was once the central command structure of the integrated spectacle is now a much smaller and insulated world of elites who no longer have the power to use their prominent positions to spoon feed the masses the gruel of “conventional wisdom”. Voters in the rural South, Midwest and Intermountain West do not get their news and information from network news casts or Newsweek magazine as was the case in the past. They get it from niche chat shows on Fox News and websites like Breitbart that speak an effective language of anti-elitism. These outlets backed the Trump train when it looked like his candidacy had staying power and helped deliver to Trump his voters. Megyn Kelly, though not a Trump supporter, nevertheless saw her star rise within the microverse of Fox News and conservative media punditry. She perhaps believed that the success she experienced in this small habitat would translate to success in a larger one.
This, however, has not been the case. When she failed to prostrate herself before Trump and added her name to the accusers of Roger Ailes and his unwanted amorous advances, she had become a persona non grata among the people who had given her the celebrity status she enjoyed at Fox News. Believing her skills as a reporter were transferable to another network (as they no doubt would have been in the past), she instead perhaps discovered her popularity was due less to reporting skills and more to the perspective she more or less conformed to and that her audience at Fox News expected. When she changed networks, this source of support disappeared and there was not a similar audience of loyal followers waiting for her at NBC. With time she might be able to create a new viewer base, but in the dog-eat-dog world of network television, she might not have much time available to her. Like Greta Van Sustern before her, she may find herself wandering the wilderness of independently produced podcasts and guest columns on Huffington Post and the like. Such a fate would be tragic, but not unanticipated if one understands the spectacle of disintegration and the increasingly fragmented nature of media universe of the twenty first century.