James Poniewozik, "Audience of One," with Emily Nussbaum
September 17, 2019, 7:00 PM
Audience of One is a love story between one man and his medium. Put aside all the other punditry and hand wringing over What Made Trump. The New York Times’s James Poniewozik reframes the question so it isn’t centered solely on business or politics or populism. To understand President Trump, we need to understand modern television itself.
Donald J. Trump lays claim to be a self-made man. For Poniewozik, however, the mantle of “self-manufactured” fits far better. And TV provided all the raw material, from wrestling to daytime talk shows, from All in the Family to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, from the mass-appeal of the three-network era to the cacophony of cable narrowcasting.
As he has done so brilliantly at The Times (where he practices a kind of “applied TV criticism”), Poniewozik breaks down the medium in fresh, piercing ways. Audience of One finds the parallels between television’s forty-year fracturing and Trump’s ascendancy from gossip item to reality star. It is an evolution that helped hone Donald J. Trump, “a character that wrote itself, a brand mascot that jumped off the cereal box and entered the world, a simulacrum that replaced the thing it represented.”
Poniewozik traces the rapid decline of the Least Objectionable Program not just with the proliferation of cable channels, but by culture’s growing fascination with antiheroes and celebrity. As network television ceased to monopolize the airways, viewers splintered accordingly. To capture those eyeballs, you needed to agitate, rather than soothe your audience. HBO offered premium edgy art fare for adults; MTV the controlled environment of teenage social experiments; CNN an insatiable 24-hour news cycle. Viewers rooted not for the little guy, but the Tony Sopranos, Don Drapers, and Walter Whites.
Trump was learning and listening, as well as shaping. Two decades after Trump’s Today show appearance, when reality TV finally was the rule not the exception, he pounced. The Apprentice would encapsulate all that he and the society had been building towards, one that was a zero-sum contact sport that called to mind the “kayfabe” of pro wrestling. Audience of One demonstrates just how far that has extended into his presidency, and in one final twist, how the Trump Show doesn’t merely play out in front of all of us, but how we play out for Trump.
James Poniewozik has been the chief television critic of the New York Times since 2015. He was previously the television and media critic for Time magazine and a media columnist for Salon. He lives in Brooklyn.
Emily Nussbaum is the television critic for The New Yorker and, in 2016, won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Previously, she worked at New York for seven years, editing the Culture Pages (and creating the Approval Matrix) and writing both features and criticism. Her anthology, “I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution,” was released in June.