4 OCTOBER 2006

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HEALTH AND THE FILIPINO

The youth of today are using mass media as means of finding an audience for sometimes even the most intimate side of themselves, acting as if their existence depended on media validation.

by DAVID M. CELDRAN

"PHILIPPINE IDOL" semifinalist Ira Marasigan is not your typical reality-television contestant. She is, after all, a fresh graduate of the Ateneo de Manila University who is living an upperclass lifestyle. That alone makes her an oddity in a television genre notorious for attracting all sorts of desperate characters who compete over cash and careers in show business.



THE ME GENERATION. Reality TV programs that range from talk shows to competitions have been transformed into a stage from which today's youth's personal life story can be broadcast far and wide.
Then again, Marasigan says she saw joining the Philippine franchise of the global TV hit "American Idol" as just having fun: "No one convinced me, I thought it would be quite an accomplishment to make it to Philippine Idol." It was considering how many Idol-wannabes auditioned for the show.

Unfortunately, Marasigan never made it to the finals of the competition. Yet, she says, her regular appearance in the program has made everyone proud of her. And for her, "that's what matters most."

Now that sounds like the mantra most contestants say after being eliminated. But it's also true that more and more people are getting into television simply for the thrill and pride of taking center stage. Money is no longer what motivates most people vying for slots in televised contests. These days it's more about the fun, fans, and fame of celebrity and in the case of Marasigan, "the chance to prove that I have what it takes to be an idol."

On of the interesting findings of the 2007 Intergenerational Research released by McCann Erickson in the Philippines is that this generation of youth is far more confident and motivated to succeed than previous ones. Getting ahead and standing out: This is our zeitgeist. And of our kids.

A sense of self-importance defines today's youth. While the rising number of reality TV programs that range from talk shows to competitions has much more to do with network economics than with experiments in social psychology, the sheer number of those who want to get into these reveals a lot about the need for people to be seen, heard, and counted. We now have the Me Generation, a breed of television viewers and Internet users who no longer consume the media passively, but actively engage these, even shaping media for their personal use. Entertainment, of course, is one such use, but increasingly, mass media have been transformed into a stage from which Generation Me's personal life story can be broadcast far and wide.

Call it the Kris Aquino syndrome. Even before the reality TV genre and Internet blogs were fashionable, this pop-culture icon was already alternately shocking and charming us with the ease with which she would navigate her private life in public. Whether it's a family feud, a romantic break-up, or pregnancy, life for Kris, it would seem, isn't truly real unless it's paraded across the TV screen. Not quite the unique phenomenon, it turns out, as media scholars have noted how performers are able to validate their stories only if these are told on TV and expressed in the press.

Many dismiss Kris Aquino as a novelty or even as a product of the blatant commodification celebrities are reduced to in our showbiz-obsessed culture. But if you consider an entire generation growing up under the same cultural framework as hers, you'll realize that Kris perhaps just happens to be its most visible icon.

SURELY, THOUGH, our ancestors must have shared a desire for prestige. Whatever our generation, what drives us to seek fame, no matter how fleeting or limited the fan base, is often little more than a desire for an audience. Pyschologists call it the need for validation.

In pre-mass media societies, however, those who ruled were the only ones with the means to be recognized beyond their village. You needed to be powerful or, at least, truly extraordinary. So-called baby boomers and Gen Xers, those 30 years old and above, may be all too familiar with this. Growing up, most of us aspired for the varsity team, the school paper, or the student council. As adults, a highly visible career in business, media, or politics was a popular choice. Yet no matter how much you wanted to be famous, you still needed the talent, looks or wealth to make it. Qualities only a few possess.

But that was then. Today the entry level to fame is lower than it's ever been and yet the desire for recognition is at an all-time high. Shifts in the way we use technology, view media, and define our identity all converge to make sure of that.

There's money, in fact lots of it, to be made from creating some buzz about ourselves. But most of those who expose themselves to the public these days do so for a different reason: to deal with the otherwise humbling notion of their ordinariness. Their attempts are, as one media critic put it, struggles for visibility. It's a struggle, however, that has been made easier by technology.

The pop artist cum social commentator Andy Warhol predicted that everyone would enjoy his or her moment of fame. He also said the moment would last a mere 15 minutes, but he uttered those words at a time when even 15 minutes of media exposure counted for a lot. This was before cable TV, YouTube, and the blogosphere. And even if celebrity then was loosely defined to include the socialites and groupies of Warhol's day, the majority the ordinary and untalented remained invisible in the media.

Today all that is changing. New media space and affordable digital tools make it possible for amateurs to bypass the gatekeepers of fame. Personal computers, off-the-shelf software, and camcorders have brought down the cost of producing books, music, films, and just about any form of entertainment. Combine that with the power of the Internet, and you have what Chris Anderson, editor of the technology magazine WIRED, calls the end of the professional era.

Of course, there is still the finite space represented by the fixed airtime of television and radio stations and the shelves of bookstores and video rental shops that puts a premium on hits and bestsellers. Put simply: if it doesn't sell, it isn't offered. Obviously this system favors the professionals, those that have the talent, training, financial backing, and industry clout to produce hits. Before you even get to that level, you would still need to convince a layer of agents, critics, producers, and publishers that you and your work are good enough to be distributed to a larger audience their audience, that is. So unless you happen to be extremely talented or well-connected, your 15 minutes of celebrity remain dependent on that phone call from some media executive. Unless, like the millions of former unknowns using the Internet to distribute their work, you've already discovered how to be famous on your own.

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