Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Politics

April 25, 2007

How HDTV will Influence the Election

Actors have spent years fretting over the rise of high-definition television. Now it's the politicians' time to worry.

J. Michelangelo Stein

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Neal and I were watching John McCain defend his much-mocked saunter through a Baghdad market on 60 Minutes. The interview left us convinced that McCain will never be president. Not because every candidate running against him could air images of his ridiculously-fortified stroll (CBS), but because in high definition, he looked terrible—and terrifying.

Neal's 42-inch HD Samsung plasma was merciless. Imagine an invisible legion of nano-sized elves tugging and swinging from every inch of McCain's skin, leaving behind a saggy disaster. There could be wind tunnels between his skin and face muscles. Add to that a hairdo that says Gore Vidal more than Vidal Sassoon, and there you have it: a hopeless candidacy.

Nixon and Kennedy square off in the first televised debate.
We make Gladwellian, Blink-type decisions about which politicians we like, based on their faces, and then buttress our case with arguments that come much later.

Nixon and Kennedy square off in the first televised debate.

Political scientists and historians have long attempted to pin down why people vote as they do, refereeing a mêlée among ethno-cultural allegiance, economic self-interest and—however hard to believe—political ideology.

Enter neuroscientists, who usually use their fancy functional MRI technology to watch our brains while we think about stuff like commerce and sex. Now, they're training them on our voting choices. According to research released last year in Social Neuroscience, our brains draw implicit associations, positive or negative, about our candidates even more from their faces than from their names. We make Gladwellian, Blink-type decisions about which politicians we like and then buttress our case with arguments that come much later. Candidates that fail the plasma test may never make it that far.

In other words, when we view our candidates on high-definition television, we view them the same way we might view our potential mates. Homophobic male readers, I know what you're thinking right now: "Dude, I am not gay. I want to vote for Mitt Romney, not hump him." But whether we like it or not, candidates appeal on a kind of libidinal level. (Hillary Clinton naked on a cold day! Hillary Clinton naked on a cold day!)

Online TV-critic Phillip Swann, who has rated each of the candidates' HD-readiness (Edwards wins four smiley faces to McCain's one), believes that there is "absolutely no question" high-definition television will affect the election. "A lot of people are already talking about how McCain looks," Swann tells Gelf. Swann also believes that little can be done to alter one's HD appearance, even Botox. He mocks Kerry's inconsistent Botoxing as yet another in a long line of flip-flops. "The upper part of his face votes one way, and the bottom another."

Unlike Swann, make-up artists are not so fatalistic about high-resolution; they offer plenty of advice to survive an HD appearance. Heather Garrow of the Makeup Artist Guild, who has done make up for both local and national politicians, claims that the best way to prepare one's face for HD is to use a magnifying mirror, a device that offers the same blunt, pitiless reality of HD. She also claims that moisturizing is crucial, and makes sure to inspect the grooming of her male clients—lest any stray nose or ear hairs earn a television debut. Garrow also reminds me of the conventional wisdom that because it threatens to expose every blemish, HD will kill porn (Slate).

But surely we the people can see beyond a few wrinkles and nose-hairs on our politicians? Like many other "informed" Americans, I try to believe I am above allowing the superficial to influence my political judgment. And like these same Americans, I tend to deem most other people incapable of the same distance. But who am I kidding? Can I really believe my early support of Barack Obama's candidacy (I've even poked around his campaign for a job) has entirely nothing to do with the soothing, smoking-induced sagacity of his voice or the vigor projected by his youth and stature?

Critics like to recall the first Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960 as the pivotal moment in television history when a lack of telegenicness torpedoed a candidacy (YouTube). They are also fond of speculating that a polio-stricken politician like FDR would never have been elected in the television age. But JFK's election did not immediately herald an age of youthful presidents—Reagan, no TV neophyte, and George H.W. Bush were both eligible for Social Security in their first terms.

Nevertheless, as we head to 16 straight years of presidents in office under 60 years old, I cannot help but think that advanced age is as deadly to a candidacy as a perceived flip-flop or gaffe. HDTV may be the coup de grâce.

Susan Gallagher, a professor of American politics and media studies at UMass-Lowell, believes that the size as much as the clarity of new televisions has changed the political landscape, ushering in an Orwellian world of wall-sized political deities speaking down to us. "It's not an accident that the big brother ad [against Hillary Clinton] was so effective," Gallagher tells Gelf.


The human face does not withstand scrutiny.

With both scale and limpidity at its disposal, HDTV represents yet another blow against a high-minded, Habermasian "public sphere" where our politics crawl out of the mud and soar into the ether of philosophical debate. The hyper-zoom and clarity of HD political coverage on mega-screens leave us little chance to process ideas or words before we have already become transfixed by the candidates' faces. Go ahead, try watching politicians in crystal-clear plasma television—you too will see how difficult it is to think beyond the superficial. HD accentuates both the physical attributes of candidates and their external magnetism—the kinds of characteristics we like to hope we can look beyond but now find them impossible to ignore. No longer can a quick touch up with cakey foundation hide the punishment meted out by sun, stress, and time. Politicians and their aged, wizened faces are more naked than ever in front of the cameras.

It is telling that the anti-Hillary ad was created by an Obama supporter. In a cynical age, when so many believe in the corruptibility of our leaders, youth is innocence, inexperience trustworthiness. In high-definition, every wrinkle embodies another crooked chapter in the candidate's life.

It is this vulnerability that leads Jeffrey Jones, a communication professor at Old Dominion University, to write in an email, "Maybe high-definition will be doing us a favor by giving viewers a more realistic picture of the airbrushed imagery they try to project." Jones tells Gelf that candidates have long paid attention to image and that HD won't change much: "It's probably going too far to suggest that unattractive candidates won't be able to compete in this new televisual environment."

As of now, Jones is right; craggy-faced candidates have yet to be guillotined by new TV technology, which is still slowly seeping into the mainstream. Only 17 percent of American households own HDTVs, and other than on NBC Nightly News and in a few newsmagazines, candidates are rarely presented in HD (Audio/Video Revolution).

But as Swann points out, this will soon change. With debates and national conventions sure to be broadcast in HD and ownership levels climbing steeply into 2008, there is little question that candidates will have to face this new level of liquid-crystal scrutiny. Kingmakers and pundits can talk all day long about positions and polls, but behind the hullabaloo lies this simple fact: John McCain is basically an over-the-hill porn star.

Related on the Web:
A Wired Magazine article about how HDTV has altered the minutiae of the sets of 30 Rock.

J. Michelangelo Stein

J. Michelangelo Stein, a history graduate student, lives in Los Angeles.

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Article by J. Michelangelo Stein

J. Michelangelo Stein, a history graduate student, lives in Los Angeles.

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