Published April 29, 2011
Everyone is talking about the royal wedding, though what many of them are saying is that too many people are talking about it.
Back in January, a "60 Minutes"/Vanity Fair poll reported that 65 percent of Americans had no interest in the upcoming marriage between Prince William and Kate Middleton; a week before the wedding, a CBS/New York Times poll said that 42 percent are “not paying any attention at all” to the event. Yet if you turned on a television, opened a newspaper, or logged on to the Internet over the past few weeks, you might be led to believe that this wedding is the biggest story in human history.
Whether or not you care---or admit to caring---about the royal wedding, I suppose it can be acknowledged that the event does offer some things of interest, though perhaps more in the way of entertainment than news. There’s the distraction theory, which argues that in a time of war, economic uncertainty, natural disasters, and other bad news, we’re looking for stories of frivolous escape. This may have something to do with the appeal of the wedding, but from "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars" to Charlie Sheen and Donald Trump, frivolous escape already outnumbers serious news on American TV.
Maybe we’re interested because this is a wedding between two international celebrities that we can actually watch, up close and personal. Most celebrity weddings are closed; all we get to see are shots from hovering helicopters or pictures from paparazzi parked outside closed gates. Then there’s all the medieval pomp and props (horses, carriages, costumes), but after fifteen seasons of "The Bachelor’s" adaptations of the kitschy iconography of Cinderella royalty, one might think the appeal of this could be wearing a bit thin.
A great part of the interest and buzz surrounding this wedding, however, was manufactured by the very entities that planned to cover it on TV and in the press. Like advance men who used to come to town early to put up posters for the circus, a wide array of media outlets began drumming up interest in this wedding many weeks ago.
That news operations would cover the story extensively was probably inevitable. Audiences with historical and cultural connections to the U.K. span the globe, and media outlets had the advantage of knowing ahead of time when and where this event would take place. There was plenty of time to position their reporters and satellite uplinks.
By April 29, even non-news cable channels had been colonized by the story, featuring a dizzying array of wedding-- and royal-themed programming. By Wedding Day, many of us felt the need to tune in simply to see what all the fuss was about.
Like British royalty itself, this story is first and foremost a massive public ritual. It’s an opportunity for many, many people to feed from the same cultural trough for a little while, even though a lot of more important things are happening.
This was also the case when Charles and Diana were married, but public ritual was a very different thing back then. Cable TV was just getting up steam in July of 1981. CNN had been operational for only fourteen months, and MTV wouldn’t be launched until three days after the wedding. And there was no Internet. This time around, millions will be posting and Tweeting their own commentary, some of it bedazzled by the anachronistic pageantry and some of it dripping with sarcastic mockery.
Robert J. Thompson is the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, where he is also a Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He was a visiting professor for six summers at Cornell University and served for nine years as professor and director of the N.H.S.I. Television and Film Institute at Northwestern University.