Cultural theory and history


Nowadays it is a common fact that television is established as a strong medium that influences in a dense way the political life and the politician's profile and attitude. Politicians more than ever promote themselves and their political programmes and beliefs through television which is undoubtedly a widely and easily accessible information network of the modern era. The present paper, having as a basis the above fact, is aiming to explore whether or not and to which extend politicians and particularly the leaders of the dominant political parties, through their involvement with the new media and specifically with television tend to behave as TV personalities. Furthermore, if this phenomenon is indeed a real event, it is also of particular interest to investigate what is the impact on a politician's reputation and profile status when becoming a TV personality, in regards to the large television audience.

Therefore it is of great importance to define at this point the meaning of a TV personality[1]. Although the particular definition is frequently used, there can be scarcely traced any references regarding its actual meaning. TV personalities could be described broadly as persons of prominence or notoriety[2] who gain or enrich their reputation through their interaction with the media world. The characteristics that Kevin Maher attaches to Ben Mee in order to describe him as a successful TV personality constitute a commendable example. His comfort ability with the camera, the awareness of the narrative needed in his programs, his ability to create dramatic tension were some of the characteristics mentioned and which actually shape as a whole the attitude of a performer.[3] Thus, turning back to the main question of the present paper it is questionable whether politicians promote through TV their real personality or if they adjust to the TV standards and demands.

In the pursuit to an answer for the above topics an account of the relation between politics and television was attempted in order to explore and analyze the reasons that made television a fundamental tool of political promotion. Aiming for a deeper insight of this interaction, the TV standards that politicians had to adjust to in order to transform into TV personalities were recorded. Furthermore taking into account the cooperation of politicians with managers, it was necessary to examine the grounds of such collaborations and moreover their actual contribution to the formation of a political image and in extent of a TV personality. The image and the oral speech of a politician seem to be the most important aspects of a politician's television profile and as such were analysed extensively, focusing mainly on examples of American politicians and their appearance on live shows. Finally, taking into account the profound tendency of the politicians to behave as TV personalities, we indicate potential threats of such behaviours regarding their future career, opening a further debate concerning the advantages and disadvantages of such a phenomenon and the future of political life which nowadays undoubtedly liaises with the media world.

Television and Politics

New media communication has reconstituted the boundaries between public -visible- and private -invisible- life and consequently politicians' profile is influenced accordingly as far as their public image is concerned, mainly by being evolved with new media promotion processes. Television introduced a field of vision which altered the way people perceive public personalities. Politicians through television can be seen, listened and observed by large audiences in a frequency that allows them to become well known personalities that indirectly but actively participate in our everyday life. The form of communication that is created lucks of physical interaction by being one-way communication and therefore the action of televised political messages deprives the chance of control or direct response of the audience to those messages.[4]

According to Bruce I. Newman the transformation of local political races to national ones made political promotion through television a necessary process. More specifically he mentions:

"The reach of the medium is greater and is necessitated by the greater number of people who need to be reached over a short period of time."[5]

Television has been used extensively by candidates and sitting presidents such as Bill Clinton whose political image stands as a good example of this phenomenon.[6]Political campaigns have had to rely on media for decades to get their messages through.[7]

"The medium of choice is television simply because of the potential impact it has on reinforcing and changing attitudes of the electorate."[8]

Mc Luhan characterized TV as cool medium that requires an intensive participation.[9] He believes that this has caused politic rigidity as TV showed the end of the political party voting, instead of the political beliefs; it could be claimed that nowadays the political image has become dominant.[10] TV is a space for narcissistic exhibitionism and this space is the most suitable for politicians to be as much narcissus as they can.[11]Television does not simply provide information but the directness of the image. Everything that is shown on TV is firstly watched and then heard or read.[12]

The first attempts of the politicians' effort to consolidate their political image through television were those of Kennedy and Nixon. Their appearances on TV shows have given strong indications on how the politics would be shaped in the forthcoming years.[13] Nixon was one of the first candidates in America who tried to use TV for his purposes. Frank Rich claims that:

"The 1960 presidential campaign debates were a turning point...But television viewers saw this dashing, charismatic figure pitted against this sweaty guy with five o'clock shadow. They thought the movie star had won. Image trumped content."[14]

Nixon after losing the elections in 1960 and his unsuccessful appearance on a TV show, he decided to recast his image on TV. On the elections of 1968, he hired TV specialists in order to design a new image on TV, the image of a leader who wants to communicate with people.[15] After him the American candidates relied on experts and used the political marketing[16] in their effort to win the elections.

Kennedy was the first president who behaved in a specific way in order to become a TV celebrity. That means that he used TV to promote the image he wanted, to become popular and beloved by the audience. Since then, presidents have communicated a specific message and image by 'shaping' their words, their actions and their appearance on TV.[17]

Reagan was the first one who succeeded a balance of his exposure on TV, and finally of his publicity. He followed the instructions of his wised image maker, Michael Deaver who was always next to Reagan controlling all his movements. Reagan really knew how to use TV to his advantage, and his acting experience helped him present himself in the right way, in the elections of 1980 and 1984.[18]

According to Bruce I. Newman, Clinton is the first president in the age of TV who managed to use political marketing and the image making in the best possible way.[19]

The above facts indicate that a new strategy in political promotion has appeared which integrated all the marketing techniques, especially those regarding the politician's image and the strong communicative power of television.

Based on the fact that nowadays television and politicians constitute an interactive system, the analysis of television's demands is considered to be important because those demands seem to set the behavioral rules of a TV personality. Considering that big channels operate more as business industries and less as sources of information, provide the opportunity for politicians to behave as actors.[20] The intense competition in the field of media and more specifically big private channels, in combination with the pressure of advertising companies, have forced them to focus on entertainment.[21] Big channels have adopted the model of entrainment and look for the spectacle.[22] TV needs people that attract the audience, interesting personalities who have a strong impact and therefore chooses to present politicians with the suitable image which appeals to the audience. A non popular TV show just fails.

Politicians who fulfill TV standards gain a better position on TV shows. TV consumes politicians like products and if they don't "sell" they eventually become useless. The consumption of TV is based on the aesthetics of the products, and the replacement of the speech from the moving images.[23] These are facts that politicians cannot ignore if they want to become TV icons.

So it could be claimed that the politicians appealing on the TV audience now days, can be recorded through the percentages of viewing. Furthermore this is the reason why TV channels have increased tremendously their expenses to produce and bring out political and informative programs.

"In a world ruled by the fear of being boring and anxiety about bring amusing at all costs, politics is bound to be unappealing, better kept out of prime time as much as possible"[24]

Following this line of thought politicians that want the audience of the prime time show, have to behave like TV personalities and have the characteristics of TV celebrities. Consequently this is why being telegenic is considered to be a big qualification of a politician.

"Political success increasingly depends on adapting to the demands of the journalistic field, which become a causus increasingly responsible for making both politicians and their reputation"[25]

"Gradually, the politicians have started to adopt a role that suits more to the surrounding that television has created and to look more like the TV personalities or the newscasters because they know that we want to elect those persons that look more attractive through television, those that are more photogenic." [26]

These days it is also a common phenomenon for celebrities (athletes, actors) to use the techniques of marketing and become stars of the politics out of nowhere.

Political managers

The politicians' involvement with television and the necessity of creating an appropriate image for such an exposure required their cooperation with consultants specialized in this field. As Thompson mentioned politicians needed managers to manage their visibility. Politicians had a careful management of their public appearance before TV. The development of new media demanded the creation of new techniques regarding their self-presentation to an unknown and vast TV audience.[27]If we consider that TV presents the age of the image, politicians have to construct it in the best possible way.

"The emergence of television was the first opportunity for candidates to develop campaign platforms that revolved around the crafting of political images."[28]

Images, not fact and information, are what needed to be conveyed to change voter attitudes.

"The ability of the candidate to communicate his or her message on both a rational and an emotional plane is enhanced with television over any other medium"[29]

Politicians focus on their personality rather than their political agenda and ideology. The political field consists of personalities and celebrities that behave according to the demands of the industry of the show.[30] Because of this in the center point of the politician's strategy is the use of image manufacturing and delivering over TV. This concept is mostly driven by the marketing[31]. [32] The new age of TV and images demands a celebrity presidency.[33]

After TV politicians were based on specialists and as Bruce I. Newman said "politics is a game increasingly played, coached, and manages from the local sandlot elections through the major leagues by professional marketers. For all practical purposes, marketing is now the game and political consultants are the coaches and managers who determine the outcome, with the media serving as umpires".[34]

Politicians and their consultants based on marketing techniques see their selves as products that have to be well presented and sold on TV.[35] The whole image is designed according to what voters need and demand after a lot of research.

"Politicians need to hear what the political consumer demands in order to analyze how that may be designed, communicated and sold."[36]

This process requires a careful management and the most capable managers. Politician is the one that has to choose them and follow their instructions in the best way he can.

The sector of political marketing is in charge of the political planning of the party and is responsible for the determination of its political views, the demographic statistics of the population and of the general political scene, the handling of the dangers from internal or external factors and the planning of the strategic goals and methods which should agree with the principles of the political party.

"Political consultants have become, on occasions, as important as the candidates they serve."[37]

Politics works as business and consultants are in its center. They are responsible for organizing, manufacturing and guiding the politician in order to be ready to adjust to what citizens anticipate from television. And this is a project that never ends, as consultants stay next to the politicians after the elections.[38]

The emphasis on the politician's personality is not something new, but after television the emphasis is on the detailed presentation, the style of speech instead of the content.[39] Adam Goodman, a media consultant said:

"we are all technocrats now" and "what counts today depends on what the focus groups tell the consultant."[40]

and James M. Perry completes in his article in Wall Street Journal:

"What counts now are tracking polls, focus groups, dial groups, and digital-TV editing machines, and of course the product, a candidate who is able to raise the huge amounts of cash needed to pay for the technology"[41]

As a result politicians today have changed completely. We can now talk about televised politics where politicians market/promote their selves as TV products, emphasize on the appearance rather than the existence. They are more and more depended on managers, consultants of political communication and the political marketing.[42]At this point it should be mentioned that are more factors that cause this dependence, like the political competition, the lack of party's ideology and beliefs, but undoubtedly TV plays a very important role.[43]

Political image and political speech

As it is already mentioned the image of a politician constitutes a key point of his profile as a TV personality.

"Today any aspiring politician must successfully exploit the icon-generating machinery of mass culture, less to articulate specific positions on issues than to project image and character."[44]

Politicians are completely based on TV for the presentation and the promotion of their image which is very carefully constructed.

"In this television era of 30-second sound bites, people from attitudes about politicians in a short period of time, leaving the delivery and overall impressions left with the viewers often more important than the messages."[45]

Developing a politician's image is a project manufactured by the best experts in the field. Believes and ideas are left behind as side issues of a superior and more ambitious plan which core objective is to make the best TV face. However, there are also found examples of this in the past such as Yves Montaine in France, Melina Merkouri and Mikis Theodorakis in Greece. The difference between the former and the new cases is that in the previous ones, these people did not become politicians through their fame but because they were already political personalities.[46]

Firstly, the image of the president has to be relevant to the needs of the audience he wishes to promote his ideas/ persuade.[47] The president must convince people to follow him. For this purpose polls and focus groups are held (business tools), to identify what people want, need and ask from their leaders.

"Replacing statement with telegenic candidates willing to sacrifice principle to opinion polls"[48]

One example of this is in the elections of 1992, when researchers found out that American people wanted to feel empowered and in touch with their leaders. All the candidates appeared on live TV-shows trying to deal with this need. This also demonstrated that politicians were perceived by people not as political candidates but as celebrities. Clinton held televised town meetings shows, honing the live debate skills.[49]

In 1984, Reagan, after having new information by the polls and promotional experts with him, decided to craft the image of a strong, confident, religious personality that cherish the notion of family and country. He succeeded in promoting this image to specific target groups, as Bruce I. Newman mentioned, he was a master at building an image.[50]

"Image wins out over reality more and more in the battle for attention and belief"[51]

An image is created through the use of visual impressions that are communicated by the candidate and is connected with symbols like the hairstyle and the clothing.

"TV debates represent the latest stage of the move towards presidential politics, with an overwhelming emphasis on the man at the top. They are measurements of personality, character, style and performance, not political substance."[52]

Nikos Dermetzis said that politicians differ from their styling choices.[53] The style of the politician must be carefully chosen in order to fit with the characteristics they want. Today's politicians almost uniformly prefer the boardroom executive look, strong-shouldered suits, collar shirts, and tastefully plain neckties, as the way to convey reliability and seriousness. An example is taken from Austria where Jorg Haider was appearing on TV wearing leather jackets, regular leisure suits, polo-shirts and Armani suits.[54] These cloths helped him look fashionable with no official style and be different from his competitors.

A clear image has to follow a specific and unique message that appeals to people's emotions. Emotions play an important role when the image is manufactured because they attract people's attention and influence their judgment. Fear and hope are the two emotions that are more intensive. According to Roger D. Masters, fear is communicated when the political leader looks down, hesitates, or begins to make fast and jerky motions. A big grin can also show fear and needs attention.[55] These movements can cause a negative reaction of the audience and damage the image.

On the other hand people need smoothness and kindness. A big smile, a warm greeting, a look in the eye, a nod of the hand can send the correct emotional signal when politicians are watched. Politicians must look strong, tough and sensitive at the same time.[56]

Speech coaches are hired for these reasons. They are responsible for the right presentation of politicians. A lot of practice is being held in order to have the required communication skills such as eye contact, gestures, smiles, volume level, pronunciation, articulation, fluency and rate when a politician speaks on TV.[57]

Marsaall McLuhan noticed that because of the cold nature of TV, acting on TV requires familiarity, comfort and impulsiveness.[58] These characteristics must be adapted by the politicians too. When Nixon in 1960 looked very strict, stiff and classified on TV, the viewer felt disaffectedness. In contrast when Kennedy was presented informal and unclassified, an everyday/common person encouraged the audience to get familiarized with him and participate in the process.[59]

In addition the needs of communication in modern politics forced politicians to consult speech writers. These have transformed politicians into announcers who just say what others have thought for them. The most effective speeches are these that do not sound as if they come from a speech writer.[60]

TV needs a simple language, rapidity, pyrotechnics and humoristic comments. As a result politicians have forgotten the art of rhetoric and have focused on these characteristics.[61] In TV live shows like debates the model of formal, intellectual language is more often employed by politicians.[62] Nikos Dermetzis argues that politicians who are interviewed on TV in order to be understandable in a diverse audience use a simple language and speak with generalization and neutrality.[63]

According to Joseph Tuman American politicians use four styles of speeches when they go into a debate on TV:

  1. Even-keeled speech: be assertive but not aggressive, firm but not polite, confident and friendly. Emphasize differences between opponents, or showcase strengths and similarities.
  2. Defensive speech
  3. Imagery speech: project the image of yourself that you want the audience to see and not the image of you that your opponent has depicted in negative advertising[64]

An example of this speech comes from the 1988 presidential race, when Dukakis and Bush were debating with the moderator, Bernard Shaw of CNN:

"SHAW: ...Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

DUKAKIS: No, I don't Bernard. And I think you know I've opposed the death penalty during all my life.....We've done so in my own state. And it's one of the reasons why we have had the biggest drop in crime of any industrial state in America;....We've had a great success in my own state.....will stop this avalanche of drugs that's pouring into the country, and will make it possible for our kids and our families to grow up in safe and secure and decent neighborhoods."[65]

It is becoming evident from the above conversation that Dukakis in his effort to protect and defend his own image and therefore to reproduce what his writers told him in order to communicate his message as a candidate, he didn't really answer the question which was about ethical position that should be kept in personal situations.

"Use of rhetoric, arguments, positions, examples, and analogies that are better suited for interactive debate that for traditional political speeches."[66]

The big difference here is that TV live interviews and debates give the chance to politicians to interact and therefore must be ready for arguments, assessments and responses. Unfortunately, for that reason questions and answers are well prepared and monitored by the writers before the politician's appearance on TV. Once again the authenticity of politicians is becoming blur. We should mention that there are times where the interviewer springs a question like in the 1988 presidential election, in the debate between GOP candidate and Senator Dan Quayle, and democratic candidate and Senator Lloyd Besten. Tom Brokaw of NBC asked Quayle:

"BROKAW: Senator Quayle, I don't mean to beat this drum until it has no more sound in it. But to follow up on Brit Hume' s question, when you said that it was a hypothetical situation, it is, sir, after all, the reason that we' re here tonight, because you are running not just for vice president. And if you cite the experience that you had in Congress, surely you must have some plan in mind about what you would do if it fell to you to become president of the United States, as it has to so many vice presidents just in the last 25 years or so.

QUAYLE: Let me try to answer the question one more time. I think this is the fourth time that I've had this question."[67]

It is obvious that Quayle was not ready for a question like this and needed time to think for answering.

Joseph S. Tuman also describes five basic tactics that American politicians use when they are interviewed on TV:

  1. scene stealing: use of drama, theatrical approach, stealing the attention
  2. using your opponent's words against him or her: use of the opponent words
  3. the strategic use of eye contact: when he is the speaker should look at the person he answers and then look at the camera like talking directly to the audience
  4. the act of depersonalization: refer to the opponent with name and title or with words like 'my opponent'
  5. piggybacking an answer: begin an answer to a new question by answering to a previous one.[68]

Politicians do a lot of practice and preparation in order to be able to use these strategies. TV speeches, when a politician is interviewed live, have followed a lot of rules and have to fit in strict time limits.

On the other hand, it should be noticed, that there are people who believe that even if politicians follow the strategies that have been analyzed above and embody a different behavioral style for TV promotion purposes, the content of their policy still remains. It is believed that an ideology can still be existing, a history that cannot be ignored. Politicians have a program, arguments, thesis and this is simply a way to project it in the audience. In the age of TV they have to fit to its demands but they can still remain faithful to their ideology and the beliefs of the party they represent.[69] The real problems still exist and solutions still have to be presented. We can talk about a constructed image on TV but not about a constructed politician.

Which are the dangers of behaving more as a TV personality?

The most critical issue here is that politicians have become consumable and "television images are, by their nature, ephemeral"[70].

Their reputation and appeal is not based in strong foundations. With the techniques described above a politician can gain a rapid popularity and an equally rapid depreciation. Politicians cultivate and improve only the site of their selves that interest TV.[71]Viewers sometimes interpret these behaviors as fake and this result to the demystification of politicians. Politicians must be ready to feel the apotheosis and depreciation by the TV- audience just like it happens with any TV personality and as Pierre Bourdieu said:

"TV which claims to record a reality, creates it instead. At stake in local as well as global political struggles is the capacity to impose a way of seeing the world, of making people wear 'glasses'...Anyone who still believes that you can organize a political demonstration without paying attention to television risks being left behind."[72]

The disbelief of the authority and the caricature of the politicians are consequences that is too difficult to be avoided.[73]

When a politician decides to participate in the TV game he must be prepared to accept any criticism, fair or not, as he is from then on under the spectacle of the public which will inevitably question his statements, actions and image at some point of his political career. George Papandreou, the prime minister of Greece, is just known as giwrgakis (little George) on Greek TV, a clear criticism concerning his inheritable relationship with politics.

Another problematic area is the unavoidable resemblance of the strategies and accordingly the similarity of the final outcome. TV in combination with the political marketing asserts the homogenization of politics.[74] As a result voters cannot recognize or distinguish the differences between the candidates. The world of political ideas and ethical dilemmas has been replaced by celebrities and personalities based on the culture of business and the culture of projection; this encourages the passive attitude of the audience.[75]


It is apparent that television is a powerful promoting medium which has the capability to make persons visible and reach simultaneously a great number of people. As a result politicians tend to use this power of TV in their effort to become popular and communicate with the citizens. At the same time the fact that TV operates more as business has introduced disciplinarian rules for the first line shows (prime time) and the persons that participate. These two factors lead politicians to the need to control their visibility and at the same time, in order to be able to take advantage of the fame and popularity that TV can offer, to obey to its rules. Managers and consultants try to shape the image, the style and the speech of the politicians according to what TV and the audience wants. Although politicians may remain faithful to their political ideologies and beliefs, the behavior that they finally adopt has nothing to do with these, as the whole image is not constructed in this basis.

Considering that TV personalities are people that need to be attractive and in some cases dramatic, acting like performers, combined with the fact that politicians try to do exactly the same following the industry of the show, it can be said that they behave as TV personalities. At the end they present on TV a constructed personality, a TV personality, as their goal is not to present their real personality in the best way on TV but the one developed according to the marketing, TV wishes and peoples' needs.

This conclusion comes after analyzing the political system referring to TV and the most important thing is that in many cases politicians instead of achieving their target to gain reputation and acceptation resulting loosing the respect and the appreciation. As a result they must be very careful when choosing to behave more as TV than as political personalities.

The number of question that could arise from such a discussion concerning the interactive relationship between media and politics is rather significant. The future of political life, the ways it might be formed, the ways citizens respond to the modern political communication and after all the challenges that could be confronted in regards to the role of media in a democratic status quo, could be questioned and analyzed in a future research.

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