Fans outside the site of LeBron James’s announcement this month.
A few days back, when I asked a pal in Hollywood about a movie he had a hand in, he told me that the “project” came together as the result of its female star’s decision to drop her ineffectual old agent in favor of a more influential new one who, in order to demonstrate his power and elevate his ambitious new client’s status, saw fit to build a “package” around her with the help of another client’s script. When I asked my friend what the movie was about — plot-wise, not conference-call-wise or power-lunch-wise — my question appeared to throw him off. Who cares about the story in the film, my friend’s faintly baffled manner seemed to indicate (and aren’t most plots awfully similar nowadays?), compared with the spellbinding story around the film?
In the contemporary entertainment business (and also, increasingly, in sports and in politics), it’s the business that’s the entertainment and the art of the deal that’s the art that draws most notice. We have become a society that is fixated on process and absorbed by the slippery, complex machinations of the middlemen, brokers and executives who conspire offstage to determine what takes place onstage. Call this outlook “procedural voyeurism” — a redirection of mass attention from the spectacle of the game itself to the circus of the game behind the game, as when LeBron James, the N.B.A. superstar, commandeered the TV sets of umpteen thousands of sports bars, not to mention the better part of the Web’s bandwidth, to tell us, months before the season’s first tipoff, that he was moving from Cleveland to Miami to take advantage of the new team’s “cap space,” a slangy term for the ability teams have to add new strings of zeros to coveted players’ salaries.
You might also think back to last winter’s late-night-talk-show feud, its battlefield swarming with lawyers, go-betweens, snitches, seducers and propagandists, that pitted Conan O’Brien against Jay Leno for the desk that the senior comedian nobly ceded to the younger and then, as if by tugging on a lasso encircling the desk’s legs, rudely jerked away. This orgy of Jacobean backstage backstabbing wasn’t televised directly, but rumors about its intrigues captured our imaginations anyhow, stirring extensive discussions of ratings numbers, severance payments, contractual etiquette and viewer demographics.
As was true of the pomp-inflated James announcement, the talk-show story was only fully comprehensible to those who grasped the methods and imperatives of the peculiar industry in question — though by this point, when the arts pages read like a softened version of the business pages, that meant practically all of us. As a consequence, what might have been an abstract conflict to Americans of 20 years ago became a rush to choose sides and man the barricades, often in solidarity with O’Brien, the victim by acclaim. Like the frenzied, grief-blinded Cavaliers fans who desecrated athletic jerseys bearing James’s now-loathsome number, O’Brien partisans rioted online over what, in the cool, dry light of reason, was merely a financial judgment. And all in a period during which, the ratings tell us, interest in the late-night shows themselves is dropping steadily.
What purpose is served by this spreading fascination — this compulsive preoccupation, really — with transactions instead of actions and with negotiating maneuvers instead of outcomes? Not long ago, the average moviegoer (for simplicity’s sake, let’s call him “me”) was capable of attending the latest comedy without knowing, nearly to the dollar, its opening weekend’s global box office. My ignorance of the film’s status in the Top 10 list of most-profitable new releases didn’t affect at all, as I remember, my enjoyment or nonenjoyment of its content or my hormonal lust for its hot stars. Nor, when I sat in the bleachers at a ballgame, did I find myself curious in the slightest degree about the annual earnings of the shortstop. If he scooped up the ball, threw to first and ended the inning, he was a success in my eyes. Performance was everything, bonus structure nothing. “Cap space?” Maybe it had something to do with hat size.
But then came the era of surplus sophistication, of ceaseless and largely needless background information about the figures surrounding the facts. Suddenly my experiences of sporting events, movies, TV shows and even elections grew distanced and convoluted and occluded. Perhaps as a way of filling the infinite spaces created by the advent of cable TV and the metastasizing Internet, a sharp-tongued procession of experts and commentators clued me in about the N.F.L. draft (broadcast live, with almost as much fanfare as the Super Bowl), the secrets of Nielsen “sweeps” month and the workings of “push polls” in presidential races. Charts and graphs came rushing to the fore, dwarfing whatever primary phenomenon they purported to quantify and investigate.
The process of delving ever deeper into questions of process is relentless, a kind of narcissistic spiral into a procedural heart of darkness. Not long after James appeared on television in that special one-hour broadcast specifically conceived to showcase his much-awaited announcement, media critics and sports writers weighed in to debate the business ethics of the broadcast itself. One observer wondered whether the show would usher in a crass new age of unpaid advertisements for brand-name athletes whose egos have grown larger than the leagues they play in. He needn’t have wondered this, though. He knew the answer. Of course it was a sign of worse to come and partly because he helped define that worse thing by publicly criticizing it.
Procedural voyeurism grants us an illusion of control over realities that we secretly fear we have no power over — sometimes correctly, as with the BP oil spill, whose coverage has been rich in process and until recently short on meaningful developments. The Romanian religious philosopher Mircea Eliade wrote about mesmerizing narratives that he called origin myths. He said they helped people feel a sense of authority over an otherwise chaotic world. Today our origin myths are more mundane, but we still see the deal as a primordial act. We might do well to call these decadent versions “LeBron Announcements” or “Conan-Leno Matches”: rituals of symbolic participation in games-within-games that are way above our heads and occur within heavily guarded inner circles that we can peek into but never truly penetrate.