We all know that Americans watch a lot of TV. Former On the Media producer Laura Mayer reports on the role music plays in one of the medium’s most popular genres - reality television.
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BOB: This is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield. Summer is upon us. For some of you, this means days at the beach, ball games in the park, fireworks, barbecues, a cold beer. But for me, dear listeners, it means one thing: hours upon hours of reality television. For instance, take my current favorite, ABC’s The Bachelorette.
Here, Caitlin bares her soul to Shawn B., confessing that she had sex with Nick V. after their last date…
shawn b: I’m trying to figure out why, you’re telling me this right now.
caitlin: I just thought it was the right thing to do.
caitlin: You have to talk to me through this,
shawn: yeah. maybe i should take a minute to regroup, go to the bathroom. and come back?
BOB: Oh. My. God. Not really. In fact, I don’t even watch the Bachelorette. And I’ve encountered more compelling drama on the back of cereal boxes. But if you listen to the music, you would think that Caitlin’s romp with Nick V. before the fantasy suite was a betrayal on par with the selling of state secrets to the Commies. And this kind of instructive scoring is not limited to the Bachelorette. Last year, former OTM producer Laura Mayer set out to uncover the widespread emotional manipulation of reality television music…
LAURA MAYER: TV is where a lot of us first hear music.
[CLIP WARNER BROS. MUSIC]
JON BURLINGAME: So my first exposure to classical music was via Bugs Bunny cartoons on Saturday mornings. (LAUGHS) For better or for worse it informed my whole life (LAUGHS).
LAURA MAYER: That’s Jon Burlingame. He’s a film and music television historian at the University of Southern California.
JON BURLINGAME: Music can help you understand where you are in terms of time and place. It can help propel the action along by speeding things up or slowing it down. But, mostly music in television is designed to elicit an emotional response from the viewer and the listener.
[MUSIC: Mad Men Theme]
LAURA MAYER: We’ve all heard about television’s current Golden Age. Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Mad Men. Prestige television that has helped elevate TV to the rank of high culture. Film music has long been analyzed by academics and cultural thinkers. Movie fans can probably name a few film composers off the top of their heads: Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman. But only a true TV obsessive can name even one prolific TV composer. David Carbonara composed the Mad Men theme by the way.
JON BURLINGAME: When I wrote my first book, which was called “TVs Biggest Hits,” which was a history of music in television in 1996, I was the first to really discuss the history and the importance of a television theme and the importance of a dramatic underscore.
LAURA MAYER: While there are academic journals devoted to obscure things like packaging technology and “Experiments in Fluids,” there are no academic journals devoted to TV music. Even though, if you’re an average American, you’re marinating in it. And many of us marinate in reality TV, and, therefore, reality TV music.
Nielsen’s Top 5 broadcast programs each week regularly include more reality TV than sitcoms, drama or news shows. Turn on your TV, open up your laptop, fire up that tablet, and you’ll see reality television everywhere. You’ll also hear it.
You know, I must reveal myself here. I’m a reality television aficionado.
JON BURLINGAME: (LAUGHS) My condolences.
LAURA MAYER: Aside from the game-based shows like Survivor or The Amazing Race, reality TV theme songs don’t really matter. The focus is on is the underscore that follows the characters and plays under almost every scene. The underscore serves an important narrative purpose: it creates story lines, sympathies, and the sense of reality, itself, in reality television. Jon Burlingame once wrote that television music is the soundtrack to our lives. The music from The Bachelor is the soundtrack to my life.
[CLIP FROM THE BACHELORETTE]:
MALE VOICE: Will you marry me?
JON BURLINGAME: I tend to watch The Bachelor and The Bachelorette with my wife on Monday nights. And it’s a really painfully obvious manipulation of the audience when the music you’re hearing is designed to suggest or move you in certain directions. If there is tension between, you know, the bachelorette and contestant A, you’ll feel it predominantly because you’re being manipulated emotionally by the music that’s playing underneath.
[CLIP FROM THE BACHELOR]:
FEMALE VOICE: I cannot control my eyebrow. I can’t control what’s on my face 24/7. If I could walk around with a smile on 24/7 I would! But my face would get freaking tired.
LAURA MAYER: Generally, the music used in reality television is licensed, very inexpensively, from music banks, hence some of reality TV’s familiar generic music for terror.
[CLIP: TERROR MUSIC]
LAURA MAYER: Humor.
[CLIP: HUMOR MUSIC]
LAURA MAYER: Romance.
[CLIP: ROMANCE MUSIC]
LAURA MAYER: Or extra romance.
[CLIP: EXTRA ROMANCE MUSIC]
LAURA MAYER: The Bravo network, with it’s slate of prestige reality television, is an exception to the rule of cheap, generic music cues. Aaron Kaplan has composed much of the underscores for Bravo, including Project Runway, and The Real Housewives of New York. As well as A&E’s Duck Dynasty. You know, prestige.
AARON KAPLAN: Each season presents different characters, there’s new story lines. So therein lies the challenge. The process in a lot of cases involves sitting down in front of your computer and then composing using this sequencer.
LAURA MAYER: If you’re leaning in right now, you’re probably a fan of Top Chef. This is Kaplan’s song, "Channel Zero," which plays during the crucial judging portion of each episode. "Channel Zero" is the signal that tells viewers to stop folding laundry, look up from email, put down Candy Crush, and pay attention now.
RICHARD LAWSON: People who are fans of those shows do perk up whenever they get their cue. It’s Pavlovian, in a way.
LAURA MAYER: Richard Lawson wrote Gawker’s TV recaps for years. He’s now vanityfair.com’s culture columnist, and no longer covers reality TV for a living. But when I asked him to review some of his old Real Housewives of New York recaps from five years ago, he couldn't help but get sucked back in. As when he recapped the scene when two former BFFs had an epic falling out.
RICHARD LAWSON: There’s a scene, as kind of the downfall of Jill Zarin began, on The Real Housewives of New York, where Bethenny Frankel has left her a voicemail. And the first thing Bethenny says is “Get a hobby.”
[REAL HOUSEWIVES CLIP]
JILL ZARIN: When she said find a hobby it clicked in my head. Over. And I really, you know, made a deposit in that friendship bank. I feel like she cleaned out our bank account.
WOMAN 2: Yeah
RICHARD LAWSON: The music is indicating support towards Jill. But when you actually pare that music away, the voicemail that Bethenny left was perfectly reasonable. But because of the way it was edited, and the way it was scored, it became this sort of triumphant turning point for Jill.
JON BURLINGAME: The fact that so many people, millions and millions of people, watch this drivel makes it important to really understand. What brings us back?
LAURA MAYER: Jon Burlingame.
JON BURLINGAME: And in some ways it may be the music that is helping to make these show successful by grounding it in some kind of emotional manipulation.
LAURA MAYER: Drivel? Emotional Manipulation? Those are some serious allegations. Hmm, how do I feel about that? For On the Media, I’m Laura Mayer
BOB: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Sam Dingman. We had more help from Maya Brownstein. And our show was edited by…Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Joe Plourde.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week, I’m Bob Garfield.