Why we all reach for the stars

A new OU course examines the intriguing relationship between the media and celebrity. Peter Taylor-Whiffen reports

So are we hooked yet? It's only three days since the latest ragbag of unknowns was thrown into the media frenzy that is Big Brother but millions of viewers are judging, loving, hating - and fascinated.

For the next 10 weeks television, newspapers and magazines will go into overdrive to bring us stories about these instant TV stars. And thousands slavishly lap up every morsel of information they are fed about individuals who wouldn't merit a second glance if they passed them in the street.

But that's the nature of celebrity, whose relationship with the media is explored in a fascinating forthcoming Open University course. The study includes considering the production and consumption of fame and how the media and associated industries have continually repositioned themselves to shape and react to ever-changing notions of our relationship with the stars.

An exaggerated perception of stardom is not, of course - unlike the Big Brother housemates - an overnight sensation. "Many people think we have developed a celebrity culture in the last five, 10, 20 years, but that's not so," says OU media studies lecturer Dave Hesmondhalgh. "The rise of reality TV has shown us the stark process of bringing someone from obscurity to immediate fame, but it's a tiny part of the history of celebrity culture."

But Mr Hesmondhalgh's chapters in the forthcoming Understanding Media course will demonstrate to students how media watchers perceive the ever-changing ways in which TV, newspapers and magazines represent celebrity. "Some commentators think Big Brother is distracting us from all the important matters we should be thinking about - others say it holds common topics to which we can all relate."

But why do we still care enough to read stories about Big Brother contestants years after they appeared on the show? BB 2002 star Jade Goody's recent split from her long-term boyfriend is making tabloid headlines, as is 2002 champion Kate Lawler's ongoing relationship with footballer Jonathan Woodgate. It's because, says Mr Hesmondhalgh, our fascination with celebrity runs deeper than watching a TV programme.

"Celebrity is a phenomenon and media and celebrity is a very hot topic," he says. "Virtually every television viewer will have had a conversation in the last few weeks about a celebrity. And many will have also discussed the surrounding ethics, whether it's privacy, intrusion, money - whether, say, stars are paid too much for what they do."

The course also explores the relationship between the celebrity and his or her audience - and the varying views of commentators as to who holds the upper hand. "People have the intelligence and the liberty to refuse something," says Mr Hesmondhalgh. "Limited information and a lack of time to consider all the options can affect our choices, but it would be wrong to say the media is all-controlling."

And he defends the industry against claims that it is exploitative - even though, for example, Will Young's pleasant but unremarkable debut single Evergreen sold a record 1.1 million copies in its first week of release as a direct result of his victory in television's Pop Idol.

"We still do have choices," says Mr Hesmondhalgh. "Pop Idol was not about passivity - Will Young sang in a style that was always going to appeal to certain sections of the market. And businessmen have been manufacturing pop acts for years but that doesn't mean we're exploited. Some manufactured acts, such as The Monkees, put out what in retrospect were judged as very good pop songs."

The study of celebrity forms only part of DA204 Understanding Media and its study texts draw on almost 100 years of papers and articles about the nature of fame. They range from the brightly optimistic to the downright curmudgeonly, such as this assessment which proves no one escapes accusations of brainwashing their audience: "How pathetic they seemed: young girls, hardly any more than 16, dressed as adults and already lined up as fodder for exploitation. Their eyes came to life only when one of their grotesque idols - scarcely older than they - made a brief appearance, before a man in a camel-hair coat hustled him into a car." So railed the New Statesman's Paul Johnson in a 1963 article highlighting what he called "the menace of Beatlism".

So celebrity culture is not a new phenomenon, says Mr Hesmondhalgh, and in spite of reality TV, the everyday person's brushes with fame are still rare. "There are people who argue shows like Big Brother have made our celebrities more accessible, but this isn't the case," he says. "The idea of someone becoming a star overnight has made celebrities more democratised, but on TV you only see an image of a person. You only know someone by meeting them."

But the importance of image has become ever greater with changes in how the industry goes about its work. "People have always been worried about the role of image in politics," says Mr Hesmondhalgh, "In the mid-20th century there were fears image was duping the masses and giving rise to Stalinism and Fascism. But television's view of celebrity has completely changed politics in the last 20 years. It has made us aware of everything politicians do, so they're looking at better ways to present that image. And any changes they make are scrutinised by the media, and so it continues. That's a main point of any study of the media - to look at how it operates and to look at how it could improve."

And is he a fan of Big Brother? "Oh yes, I'll be watching it," he says. "And I'm watching Hell's Kitchen. But I'll also be watching Newsnight."

DA204 Understanding Media is available from February 2006. Interested students can prepare by studying AA310 Film And Television History or by taking any OU social sciences or arts foundation course. For details visit www.open.ac.uk/courses

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