Competing For Your Attention

Seeing a handful of my friends and colleagues appearing on competitive reality TV shows every week has given me a major case of FOMO. I’ve struggled with the notion of auditioning many, many times. I’ll be the first to admit that I often think that by not participating I’m ceasing to stay relevant. I tell myself “It’ll be good exposure” or “my friends and family will see me on TV and know I’m successful!” It stings even more when those same friends and family seem to constantly poke, “why don’t you go on America’s Got Talent?” Their intentions are undoubtedly kindhearted. But the notion lingers — why don’t I?

The intention behind this post is partly to write out my thoughts (as an exercise to better understand them) and partly to continue the discussion with those that might disagree. When it comes to experiencing magic, do shows like Americas Got Talent (or competition shows designed specifically for magicians like Wizard Wars and Penn & Teller Fool Us) do more harm than good, for both its audience and its acts?

At the heart of any reality competition show is, of course, attention. More specifically, mass attention: a way for an artist from, say New York, to stand out from the rest when they normally are drowned out by the noise of the other acts in their big city. It can be a great way to get exposure to the masses, but sadly this attention is often temporary. You could go viral and be on everyone’s screens for a couple days, and in rare cases you could even glean a few great (even well-paid) opportunities from it. But then what? Far too often the desire for immediate attention outweighs the drive to be a more robust artist. Creating long lasting impressions on an audience may take more than a seven-minute stint on a highly edited talent show, especially in magic — which in our culture is already riddled with novelty. Sadly the drive to create sustainable narrative falls to the weigh-side when all you have to do is be a seven minute spectacle.

Take a show like Fool Us, where the judges are legendary professional magicians- surely they have a sense for great magic, right? Absolutely. But sadly that’s not the premise of the show. The show is based on one criteria: fool them. Perform a trick that whizzes by their first guesses and you’re golden. Despite the few fleeting comments from Penn on the artistry of the contestants, it sends a simple message to the masses — are you good enough to fool them? As if, that’s all we have time for.

As my friend, author Douglas Rushkoff notes in his book Present Shock,

“The more of this kind of media we enjoy, the more spectaculary cruel it must be to excite our attention, and the better we get at evading the moral implications of watching the spectacle.”

I’m afraid magic is becoming like most of the quickly consumed content out there: boiled down and exploited for its ability to capture the attention of its audience for the mere fact of capturing their attention; not necessarily to do anything with it. After all, our attention is the most valuable commodity. Much like the scroll culture of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the shift to a shorter, transient, “now-entertainment” must occupy the empty space in our brains. The acts competing for your attention end up concentrating on (and one-upping) what others are doing rather than focusing on the quality of their own artistry. Their art is now made up of these bite sized, undercooked bursts of spectacles. Standing out from the crowd has now become the goal and not just a pleasant result. Talent, I fear, has become formulaic and seems to be defined by how many likes, votes and views can be procured. The shows that promise us the ability to stand out from the noise have now become the noise. But maybe that’s just how it works now and I’m missing out.


*Originally posted on Medium on 10/1/2015