Media, celebrity and attention income

Circulation figures and audience ratings are measures of the attention drawn by a medium as a medium. They also measure its financial success, and the financial motive could, by itself, be sufficient to indirectly promote the celebrity of everything which increases the medium’s attractiveness. However, one would miss the point if one were to limit one’s view to the pecuniary aspect. A medium’s financial success in turn depends on its marketability as an advertising space. The offer of advertising space is an offer to attract attention via a service rendered. It is the effectiveness of this service that is measured
with circulation figures and audience ratings. This is why the income in attention ranks above financial success, also with respect to the medium itself; and this is also why everything increasing the medium’s attention income will be promoted, published, cultivated by it. Everything that which is promoted, published and cultivated by the media is, by definition, celebrity.

And, lo and behold, what is best for a medium’s attention income? Very simply: as much celebrity as possible. People enjoy nothing more than looking at faces shining with publicity. Nothing increases circulation more than as much gossip as possible about the world of the stars. Nothing increases viewing figures more than the commotion around the stars themselves. This is why gossip columns are beginning to appear among serious commentaries and features; why, too, the tabloid press finds it worthwhile to report on surveys identifying the most frequently cited researchers. This is why, too, prime time family television hours are absolutely packed with celebrities. It is why prima donnas promote Rolex and soccer idols recommend Budweiser – already, television and publishing programmes without well-known faces are beginning to be regarded as elitist.

Nothing seems to attract attention more than the accumulation of attention income, nothing seems to stimulate the media more than this kind of capital, nothing appears to animate advertising space with a stronger power of attraction than the displayed wealth of earned attention. The media would have to invent celebrity if it did not exist already; they would have to create their candidates out of nothing if they were not already available for recruitment. Celebrities are needed en masse if one wants to make the attraction of attention a mass business. The solution to the riddle of the miraculous increase in
celebrity lies in the media’s ability to collect and deliver the critical quantities needed to run the gathering of attention as a mass business.

The media are by no means just shunting yards of information. They are a system of channels supplying information in order to extract attention. A television appearance means much more than just the dissemination of information. It makes it possible technically to multiply one’s personal presence with the aim of transmitting one’s reproductions into people’s living-rooms, to collect donated attention. The media’s power of producing celebrities is only limited by the suggestive capacity of this collection service.
It was only gradually that the media acquired this power. The mechanical reproduction of the written word, of sound and images, was just the technological starting point.

It was also not the demand for information as such which made the media great. What made them great and ensures their continued growth is the ingenious business idea of offering people information in order to capture their attention. Without the attention income which publication promises, the publishing trade would not even have developed in any significant way. If only material certain of commercial success had been published in books and periodicals, today’s literary scene would look different from the way it does
now. Just the fact that authors reckon in the currency of attention explains their willingness to toil for the best expression of an idea in return for starvation wages. The ingeniousness of the publishing trade’s business idea lies in splitting up the returns in terms of financial and attention currency. The production conditions of our literary culture are such that the publisher gets the money and the author gets the attention. If, in addition, the publisher acquires reputation and the author wealth, this – in economic terms – is surplus profit: it is not necessary to keep the system going.

It is exactly this mixed calculation which lies behind the transition from publishing organ to mass medium. A mass medium cannot be delicate in its choice of means for capturing attention. The author working for attention wages cannot avoid being particular in this respect: only attention earned for something one personally identifies with counts as personal income. This is why the desire for attention is so closely linked with that for self-fulfilment. However, what furthers self-fulfilment rarely gets the masses going. One will only move them by closely observing what the general public wants to read, listen to, or watch. Their desire for sensation must be satisfied, catchy tunes have to be put on the air, pictures have to be touched up to catch the eye. Production for this elaborated taste also requires creative minds. But it requires those who are willing to serve a foreign cause, and it is this willingness which has to be addressed with money

Compromise thus earns its income. One can make a good living from the salaries paid by the entertainment industry. Journalism also feeds its people. The attention incomes earned in show business and entertainment are also considerable. However, in those fields they are clearly proportionate to the respective money incomes. And the attention generated by an appearance in a film, on radio or television, or in the press, is always also partly directed towards the respective medium as an institution or brand. For, just as attentive and financial remuneration has to be combined in order to assemble masses of people in front of printed pages or screens, the respective medium itself must attract both money and attention if it is to reach the masses reliably.

The newspaper has to be read because it exists; one must watch television because television exists. Put more succinctly: pages and screens have to become a separate, naturally perceived stratum of social reality. They have to compete with the unmediated view of reality. They have to impose themselves as fixed items in attention budgets.
They will only do so if the medium in question reliably presents what people want to see.
If the offering is to people’s liking, if enough money and attention are spent on keeping people in line, then the medium also acquires an additional quality for those appearing in it. Guaranteed circulation figures and ratings create a fund of anticipated attention which suppliers have at their unlimited disposal. Control of the TV channels means being able to re-let a mass of expended attention. Those offering space in printed media or transmission time become able to elevate somebody to celebrity in the same way as, historically, successful conquerors could elevate somebody to the nobility by conferring fiefs.

They are the only group in society able to freely dispose of the most highly valued resource. And, like emperors and kings, they can increase their own fame by sending out their followers, thus endowed, on further conquests for the respective medium. However, as commercial enterprises, the media also have the opportunity to turn the attention they capture into hard cash. They can rent out their territory as advertising space.

Indeed, through this commercial activity they can gradually make themselves independent of the sale of information that is broadcast to catch the eye. The most modern mass medium, private television, finances itself exclusively by selling the service of capturing attention for anything whatsoever. The fact that this service also assists the celebrities it has itself ennobled, simply shines more light on another facet of this business concept.

Brilliant business concepts are seldom equally beneficial for all sides. The attention which the media re-let is unilaterally donated by the people sitting in front of pages or screens. People pay with their attention to the supplier in return for discovering what they like. The relationship between the attention invested by suppliers and that collected in return is strictly asymmetrical. Suppliers disseminate information in the form of technical reproductions, while consumers pay with live attention for each copy.

Only through this asymmetry is it possible to collect such a mass of donated attention, which is what
makes a medium attractive for those appearing in it, and which permits the media their lavishness in conferring the modern aristocracy of celebrity.
An inevitable consequence of this asymmetric exchange is the social redistribution of attention incomes. The media make one stratum wealthier and exploit another. Not that exchanging information for attention is unfair in principle. But if the attraction service is organised on an industrial scale, then the social disparity between those rich and those poor in received attention increases inadvertently. One may speak of outright exploitation when television addiction becomes epidemic.

To be sure, the redistribution effect of media consumption does not act upon an originally equal distribution. It reinforces an existing disparity. Just as old as humanity itself – no, much older – are individual differences in the talent for capturing the attention of others. There have always been shining and celebrated figures who effortlessly engaged everybody’s senses and hearts. And there have always been the forgotten, overlooked ones who sacrificed their self-esteem to attract just one glance. Natural
differences in talent have also always been intermingled with social privileges or disadvantages. In order not to attribute too much to the media, one must acknowledge that something like the capitalisation of attention income existed long before the media came into being.

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