CommentaryTV, Willing Willie, the Public Sphere
by Melinda Quintos de Jesus
Published in the May-June 2011 issue of PJR Reports
THE CONTROVERSY hounding the television show Willing Willie does not begin and end with the boy, Janjan, and his tearful macho dancing. If we focused only on the episode, we would miss the lesson we need to learn about media and its role in society.
The courts are now in the picture, and there are few quicker ways to quash discussion and debate in this country. TV5’s president and CEO announced that the company will file libel cases against critics of the network and the show’s host, Willie Revillame. The parents of the boy sued the psychologist who reportedly stated that his dancing on the show resulted in his abuse. I doubt whether the courts can put an end to the contradictory claims about child abuse, but the decision on this would not necessarily resolve the larger questions.
Whatever moves to silence criticism, the public should not shirk from grappling with the profoundly difficult problem that Philippine television has become, nor from continuing the public exchange which could help us all to review how television shapes our public sphere—that realm in time or space which serves metaphorically as the public square, the plaza if you will, where we have traditionally taken our shared concerns so we can talk about it, hearing out the arguments and counter arguments about what we are to do when confronted with difficult issues affecting all.
But this show is entertainment. It does not fall under journalistic review. It does not take up public issues. It is about having fun and getting free money.
The questions raised have to do with the role that television plays in society. And television combines both journalism and entertainment in the same medium, albeit in separate segments. Unfortunately, what happens in one part of the programmatic spectrum affects all other aspects with total impact.
Television in countries where commercial advertising determines what stays on the air has muddled the line between entertainment and news and public affairs. The result is a public sphere where it is difficult to have coherent conversation.
There are harsh critics who have early on charged television with the decline of intelligence. These refer to the wasteland created by mass media where the lowlife can be king or queen. Mass media cater to that audience at the bottom of the pyramid. Its offerings are designed for popular appeal, but in effect target the least common denominator. It is like feeding one kind of food, the easiest to digest, yes, baby food, to adults with teeth.
If we had all been more alive to our responsibilities as an audience then we would have noticed the wholesale surrender of the public sphere to the so-called demands of the mass audience—so-called, because really, no one in the mass audience actually demands anything from television. Often, it is just that box that is turned on mindlessly, operating on autopilot to provide sights and sounds to fill vacuum and emptiness.
Only a few will ever take the time to question what is being offered. Those who have better ways of spending their time, tune out. Those who have nothing better to do, keep it on, to be engaged, perhaps, or entertained momentarily.