The Consumer Republic: Star Search

With 130 programs to churn out every year, Biography’s motto –“Every life has a story”– is taken literally.
It used to be that everyone was due 15 minutes of fame. Thanks to cable TV, it’s now been extended to an hour. No matter what the day of the week, viewers seeking a distraction from their own miserable lives can find it in the triumphs and tragedies of someone–anyone–more famous than themselves.
There are profiles of female people (Lifetime’s Intimate Portraits), country-and-western people (TNN’s Life and Times), celebrity people (E!’s Celebrity Profile) and creative people (Bravo Profiles, imported from the U.K.). Come March, we’ll also be treated to the life stories of a select group of People people on CNN, as the magazine becomes the latest to vie for the crown of the People of television.
That honor surely goes to A&E’s Biography, which in 11 years has grown from a cable TV show into an industry. With 130 programs to churn out every year, the show’s motto–“Every life has a story”–is taken literally. There are billions of people occupying the planet, and almost as many have lived their lives and passed on. Watching Biography, there are moments–during last December’s fast-food kings week, for example–that made me think the program will eventually feature them all.
Those for whom six nights of Biography and its clones are not enough will soon relish the digital Biography Channel. There are Biography audio and video cassettes, books, CDs and a Saturday-morning kids program. Two years ago, the inevitable Biography magazine was launched. To this reader, the journalistically responsible blandness that makes the TV show so easy to digest makes the monthly mag positively soporific. But during 1998, the spinoff tripled its rate base to 450,000 readers.
These days, memoir trumps the novel as the contemporary literary genre of choice. Pop divas and movie heartthrobs spawn hundreds of Web sites. The appetite of the unknown for their notorious betters seems unlimited.
Well, maybe. But after many years of watching the A&E series, I wonder whether the explanation isn’t the other way around: The currency of fame is as much a matter of supply as demand. In the Biography library of more than 600 shows, you’ll find the usual suspects: The Kennedys, for example, have been the subject of six profiles (seven, counting Jackie O), a family showing second only to the 11 portraits of the Windsors–two devoted to Fergie alone. But with six slots a week to fill and only one Princess Di, Biography has vastly expanded the universe of TV-worthy “celebrities,” which stretches from Adam and Eve to Ozzie and Harriet, John L. Lewis to Shari Lewis. The media abhor a vacuum, and as they expand, so do the number of celebs needed to fill them.
For Biography fans, the upside is that many of the series selections–Confucius, Charles Dickens, Dag Hammarskj…ld–are among the rare entertainments not out of the mouths of focus groups; indeed, its biggest ratings hits include Sam Walton and Nostradamus.Yet digesting a steady diet of these cookie-cutter chronologies is like watching the meltdown of the old cultural hierarchies week by week. The Biography approach makes no distinctions between the good guys and the bad guys.
Ma Barker gets the same treatment as Amelia Earhart. Kelsey Grammer, a subject for whom an hour seems about 50 minutes too long, is lavished with the same attention as Adolf Hitler, to whom one could devote a whole channel. (Come to think of it, A&E Television Networks has already done that: the History Channel, whose slogan should be, “Where Hitler Lives.”)
The unwavering anchormen-with-a-heart voices of alternating hosts Jack Perkins and Peter Graves also help homogenize Biography’s otherwise eclectic mix.
Whatever personal catastrophe the series’ subjects suffer–spousal kidnapping (Ernie Kovacs), multiple sclerosis (Annette Funicello) or parents axed to death (Lizzie Borden)–the narrators never falter. The two hosts have a way of making the endless descents into drugs and alcohol or the many broken marriages they’ve chronicled over the years sound like just one of those things. In the unlikely event Biography goes out of business, its hosts’ mastery at striking that perfectly unjudgmental, subtly upbeat note would make them first-rate self-esteem counselors.
Yet when Satan and Andrew Cunanan get equal airtime, one begins to suspect the unthinkable: Celebrity, America’s favorite trivial pursuit, is being trivialized. A group whose members include Heidi Fleiss and Cleopatra is not a group at all, just a random collection. And I suspect Caesar Augustus would agree that after sharing the stage with Howard Stern, being famous isn’t what it used to be.