Incredible Inevitable Television

20 Nov

Though 24 follows an advanced counter-terrorism intelligence unit with access to advanced technology, it seems like Jack Bauer and his crew watch a lot of TV.

In Episode 3, the terrorists make themselves known through a localized broadcast system. They arrange themselves around a kneeling hostage in front of a camcorder, wearing the ski-masks and military gear we’ve all come to know. The broadcast is picked up simultaneously by the Department of Defense and the major public broadcast networks, and when given the choice between two sources, the advanced CTU and the President’s handlers both make the choice to flip the nearest television to the news. The President watches in horror as the terrorists make the demand that he halt the signing of his counter-terrorism treaty with Russia, begging his aide that they make the networks stop.

“We have to get this lunatic off the air!”
“Sir, we can contact the networks, but they’re under no legal obligation to comply.”

He then backs away hopelessly, seeming to accept that the fate of the nation is not in his hands, but in the media’s. Let’s think about that for a second. He is the president, and he is getting his information through TV. He is not in the Situation Room, or in a smoke-filled conference room working to resolve the issue facing his country. He flips on the TV. Real world precedents for the media coverage of pressing issues of national security definitely exist: but when the Unabomber demanded that his manifesto be published in major newspapers, the papers waited for the government’s position. It was determined that the publication could lead to the bomber’s capture and save lives. This logic seems not to reach the relevant parties in 24. Minimizing media presence of hostile terrorists could have diffused the situation, but the President and his aides cede control to the news media.

In the next episode, the same logic surfaces. The treaty-signing ceremony begins, and the aide refuses to accept that he could even stall the ceremony. He could not fathom the idea of adding a few paragraphs to the President’s speech.

“No, the entire world is watching this on live television; the presidents of the United States and Russia are onstage now. This process has been set in motion, no one can stall it.”

The ceremony is even allowed to run ahead of schedule, as the CTU scrambles to launch a rescue operation before the moment of the treaty signing. This seems to be an instance where the show’s obsession with the “nick-of-time” rescue causes the show to depart from reality. Governmental control takes a back seat to the supremacy of the media. It is unstoppable, and cannot be told what to do, even by the Counter Terrorist Unit and the President of the United States.

6 Responses to “Incredible Inevitable Television”

  1. crystalfong November 24, 2012 at 12:41 am #

    This post reminds me of how important the media is in the pilot episode of Homeland. It’s very clear that appearances before the camera matter the most. When Sergeant Brody is puking into a toilet on the plane, the politician doesn’t care and just wants him to smile and wave like it’s the “fucking Macy’s Parade” because the Vice President and the paparazzi will be awaiting him. They have no regard for the personal comfort of Brody, but instead care more of how the outside world will perceive him via mass media. Are politicians such a slave to the media that they disregard Brody’s personal issues? These shows make you wonder if the media or the government has greater power.

  2. alessiofranko November 24, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    TV on TV is always an interesting subject and one that we have not paid close attention to in class since The Twilight Zone. How is it possible to depict TV, not only the set, but the network, its viewership, etc. on a TV show? In this case it seems as though the mise-en-abime short circuits representation itself: Just in the way that the viewer cannot change what they see on TV, neither can the characters in 24. Put more directly, if anyone on TV ever turned off a TV, the viewer would be alerted to the fact that they could do the same. TV is always an automaton on TV, a supernatural force in certain ways, and a device in more ways than one. To portray TV as anything less would be to undermine the force of the show being watched.

    • evanharold November 24, 2012 at 6:21 pm #

      This makes sense in the scope of 24, but I don’t think it’s as applicable to other shows. Particularly in multicam sitcoms where the TV is arranged within the fourth wall, the set is turned off and disregarded all the time. Considering the simultaneously pro- and anti- TV positions that shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, My Wife and Kids, According to Jim, and The Twilight Zone take, it seems like TV’s self(self?)-undermining inherently removes it from other automata, and does more than inform audiences of their own agency.

  3. jordanlarsson November 25, 2012 at 12:47 am #

    At first thought this seems to represent the lack of realism in 24 above all else. The reactions of the government to the media act as plot devices, and not that much thought seems to be given the media in other aspects. However, the undisputed broadcasting of the hostages’ executions was one of the more harrowing parts of the episode, and made me question the reality of the show not in terms of how well it represented our reality, but to what extent the show was trying to imply either a dystopian near-future or what it thought our current War-on-Terror-filled society could become. Especially in the wake of more and more deaths either being broadcast live (in the case of Fox News in late September, when they broadcast a car-chase turned suicide) or recordings being posted online (as the Israeli Defense Force did when they tweeted a video of a Hamas member’s death), the breaking down of barriers in terms of what is presented to the public seems to be happening rapidly.

  4. rohulray November 25, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    Perhaps this skirts discussion of other televisual dimensions like network aesthetics and mass viewership, but one meta-moment in Homeland that called my attention to the act of TV viewing was Carrie’s illegal video surveillance of Brody’s home. In these scenes, we are essentially watching Carrie watch Brody via this Big Brother hidden-camera aesthetic (I think Virgil at one point in the season explicitly makes this reference to reality show-esque spectatorship). For example, the uncomfortable emotional-whirlwhind-of-a-sex-scene in the pilot when Jessica takes Brody’s shirt off to reveal his torture scars causes Carrie, watching the dramatic scene unfold from the comfort of her living room, to flinch and look away for a second, even removing her headphones to further distance herself from the raw liveness and dirtiness of the moment. A second later, she puts her headphones back on, unable to resist the urge to gaze into this private, typically-inaccessible world. That scene prompted me to take a meta-step back and reflect on why I, too, was watching this, and how Carrie represents our obsessive viewership.

    Also, I think Evan might’ve just blown my mind a little bit — I seriously can’t think of a multicam sitcom where you can actually see the television set.;.


  1. Media Spectacle « American Television From Broadcast Networks to the Internet - November 25, 2012

    […] press releases and signing, President watching the terrorist’s video in the airport). As Kirsten discussed, the characters have no power over the media, and seem to not be able to control the situation […]

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