Famous people, persons occupying high public office and the social elite have always had the attention of the mass media. In Australian newspapers throughout the 20th century, they turned up in news items connected to their professional activities or in photographs taken at the latest charity ball in what were called the ‘social pages’. In contemporary media, we also have celebrity—a more extensive and intrusive form of public visibility. Celebrity is not necessarily the consequence of the public recognition of individual achievements in the way fame was. Rather, celebrity is a form of fame that is generated directly by media exposure: it is a product of the promotions and publicity industries rather than an outcome of public recognition.
There are many celebrities who have little in the way of public achievements but who have achieved such a degree of visibility in the media that it makes them the object of public curiosity. Unlike the kind of curiosity that might have accompanied interest in someone who was famous for their achievements or their public or institutional roles, the curiosity that attends celebrity is directed towards the private life of the person in question; readers and viewers want to know what this person is ‘really’ like. Hence celebrity stories in the media focus on following shifts in relationships (particularly romantic or sexual relationships), uncovering details of domestic life, exploring secrets in the celebrity’s past and closely documenting any changes in personal appearance.
Progressively since the 1980s, celebrity has become a distinct genre of media content. Initially, celebrity news and gossip emerged as a prominent component of the content of mass market women’s magazines—indeed, the development of the market for celebrity content rescued these magazines from potential oblivion during the 1980s, as earlier, more traditional modes of addressing a female audience lost their purchase. Gradually, celebrity has become a standard component of all media formats: on television, it is a regular element of news and current affairs, breakfast programming and chat shows; on radio, it is staple fodder for the talk formats; in the print media, it turns up in the glossy weekend supplements of the ‘quality’ newspapers as well as on the front pages of the tabloids; and the online environment is heavily populated with fan sites, celebrity blogs and on the like. Turner, Bonner and Marshall (2000) charted the rise of celebrity news from the 1970s through to 2000 and found that in some instances—the current affairs program 60 Minutes, for instance—celebrity stories could occupy as much as 50 per cent of an individual edition. Whereas celebrity stories were virtually non-existent in television news bulletins in the 1970s, they occupied up to 20 per cent of bulletins by 2000.
Media interest in celebrity is widespread—indeed, the rise of transnational celebrities such as David Beckham has become one of the key drivers of media globalisation. In Australia, the rise of celebrity is the consequence of specific local factors—most importantly, the expansion of the public relations, publicity and promotions industries. The origins of this expansion lay in developments in the media and entertainment industries over the 1970s and 1980s: the revival of the Australian film industry, the development of a local television production industry and the rise of a local popular music industry. These industries produced their own stars and personalities, thus generating demand for promotions and publicity professionals who could manage them and make them visible through the media. In the 2000s, this demand was further increased by the development of reality television formats.
Reality television makes a particular contribution to the production of celebrity. Whereas earlier forms of celebrity were created by the media picking up individuals who had already established a level of public visibility elsewhere, reality television created that initial public visibility itself. It is aimed at generating audiences for advertisers, but it also constitutes a production line for the creation, exposure and disposal of celebrities. Each series of Big Brother, for instance, endowed its contestants with celebrity before superseding them with the cast of the next series. As reality television programs and formats have proliferated, however, the period of visibility enjoyed by such celebrities has shortened and the level of public attention they can expect has decreased. As the field of potential celebrities becomes more crowded, the life-cycle of each has shrunk. Yet, as a focus of interest for media audiences, celebrity itself shows no sign of disappearing.
REF: G. Turner, F. Bonner and P.D. Marshall, Fame Games (2000).