On Air: Wackos, jocks and naked lies

Jasper Rees examines the American obsession with self-examination
Click to follow
THIS IS AMERICA, a five-part documentary on Radio Three, explains how America uses the broadcast media to gaze at its own navel. At one point in his fortnight's odyssey round the States, its presenter, Ian Peacock, chanced to participate in a moment of perfect broadcasting circularity. A man was standing on a street corner in Los Angeles hawking tickets to a CBS television show. Peacock started recording him, whereupon a camera crew showed up and proceeded to film Peacock taping the ticket-seller, which Peacock in turn commented on. It was, in other words, a report of a report of a report.

American television and its audiences have come to know each other so well that this type of reflexivity is no longer a side order: it's part of the main dish. You get knowingness in American TV the way you get fries with your burger. There's a cable station called the E! Channel which is entirely given over to the subject of television. The Larry Sanders Show, the most sophisticated and witty television programme in America, is about a television programme.

It's hardly surprising that Americans are so familiar with a medium whose grammatical rules they more or less invented. By the time the average American reaches the age of 72, he or she will have watched 12 years of television. This daily intake acts as a kind of deposit into an ever- accumulating bank of information.

Fittingly, the name of Peacock's series is not original, but borrowed from an American radio show. The American This American Life is broadcast on National Public radio once a week from a pier on Lake Michigan. The suitably reflexive name of its host is Ira Glass, a Woody Allan soundalike who sets himself a weekly mission to define America; his catchphrase is, "In America, meaning is up for grabs." So what is the meaning of the American media?

The British This American Life investigates the theory posited by Jean Baudrillard that the media is America's Polaroid, the instant snapshot it constantly takes of itself to see how it's looking today. "Baudrillard said you have to enter the fiction of America when you get here," says Peacock, "and accept that it's not a country but a dream. America, the idea, appears first in the media, then in real life. He looks at America as a sort of hypertext, as the world's only self-conscious utopia."

That self-consciousness manifests itself as a kind of insecurity. We perceive America as a nation blithely certain of its primacy, but This American Life tells a different story, in which America uses the media to inflate its own fragile ego.

"America always wants to tell itself that it is large in every respect," says Peacock. "When you listen to zoo radio in the mornings, they are not just doing a programme. They are saying, `We are wacky, we can be more shocking than anyone else.' " David Letterman is saying, `I'm a fun guy and the Americans are better at being fun guys than anyone else.' They're patting themselves on the back.'

It doesn't matter how many people are actually watching this ritualistic self-validation. One programme in the series is about Manhattan public access television. It's here that white supremacists, African Zionists and transsexual evangelists are allowed to disseminate their views unvetted to a world that has better things to do than watch. Public access TV is a safety valve through which society's wackos let the hot air out of their system. Peacock says it's no more harmful than hospital radio. "Nobody ever listens to it," he says, "but it's terribly good therapy for the people who work on it."

The series fetches up in Los Angeles, which underpins more than anywhere else Baudrillard's assertion that in America "the cities come straight out of the movies, rather than vice versa." The programme is called The Truman Show after the hit film starring Jim Carrey as the unwitting star of a real-life soap. The corollary of the American drama is the American lie, and Los Angeles is the world capital of bare-faced mendacity.

"It seems whenever you want to cancel an appointment you kill a relative," Peacock says. "On one occasion somebody unexpectedly had to fly off to New York a few minutes before my interview with him. I went to the TV channel where this person worked in order to interview some executive instead, but then I had to go outside to wait for a cab. As I was waiting this person came round the corner presenting a trailer for his programme. But there was no way in which I could have walked back into that building and said, `This is a lie,' because that would have broken the illusion. The primitive undergraduate thesis of America did come true in the making of the series - it's about dreaming and lying and myths and tall tales."

`This Is America' begins on 29 June, Radio 3, 9.15pm