Prince has died at the age of 57. Yesterday it was Victoria Wood. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett…the list of cultural giants who have passed away this year doesn’t end there.
For a few years now I’ve been boring friends and colleagues with my theory that the rate of ‘celebrity-deaths’ (please pardon the crude phrase) is only going to rise over time. It’s almost too easy to point to 2016 as evidence of this – but I do think it provides food for thought. It also provides a reason for me to write the following: we need to start the discussion about how the media covers celebrity deaths in the future. Why? Because I worry that these deaths will become so frequent that the way we currently do it is not sustainable.
“We’re entering an era of mass celebrity death”
When these famous people lost their lives this year, the coverage has been, arguably, suffocating. If you’re a Twitter user there’s no point in looking at your feed for hours after the news breaks unless you want to read the same tributes a thousand times over. And unless C-listers who-sort-of-vaguely-knew-the-celebrity-in-question relaying tenuous anecdotes at length is your thing, you must avoid any radio/tv/online outlet which deals with breaking news. World leaders pay tribute. And so on it goes.
Of course – for fans of the person who has just died – this coverage will always be appropriate. I’m not saying any outlet got their coverage wrong this year. I just wonder if we need to think more about how it’s done in the future because I believe it will happen more and more. And what do we do when two massive ‘names’ pass away on the same day as a massively important news event (eg. EU Referendum day)? The news world could implode.
The rate of ‘celebrity deaths’ will increase
In the age of The Beatles there simply weren’t enough media outlets to facilitate many big celebrities. Since then…radio blossomed, TV became commonplace in every UK household, the numbers of channels increased, magazine publishing went into overdrive, the internet arrived, smartphones and tablets came on the scene, and blogs and vlogs have recalibrated how easily and quickly people could become significant celebrities and role models for an entire generation. There are LOADS of celebrities these days.
I know, I know…the likes of Bowie and Prince truly are unique due to their position in history. When there were fewer world-famous artists each one had a deeper meaning (arguably) to a greater number of people. But in the same way that humans are capable of having anywhere between two and 200 friends they know and care about, I believe we are all capable of liking and caring about a huge number of celebrities. And there are simply more celebrities now.
We’re entering an era of mass-celebrity-death
The only news that ever gets reported will be about death. We’ve had a taste of that this year – and it ain’t right.
Sorry, I don’t mean to sound crass. But if the ‘media revolution’ happened in the 50s and 60s – then the increased number of people we nationally love and care about are becoming more and more at risk of their lives coming to an end. Five, ten, twenty years from now that trend will increase massively. So if a daily ‘celebrity death’ becomes the norm – how should the media deal with it? Should there be rolling news coverage of each one? Should regular TV and radio programming be replaced by tribute programmes every time? Should big news stories be pushed aside for obituaries?
Of course – the answer will depend each time on who it is. Personally, I think the way forward is less blanket-coverage.
Immediate tributes – yes. Well-crafted and thoughtful obits on the evening news – yes. Hours/days of rolling coverage? No. A few years from now, if ‘celebrity death rates’ increase, I just don’t think that will be possible. Otherwise, the only news that ever gets reported will be about death. We’ve had a taste of that this year – and it ain’t right.
I’ve just listened back to last Friday’s episode of ‘More of Less’ (Radio 4, 15th April 2016).
They looked at whether more celebrities have died in 2016 than in other years, and discovered how many ‘official’ BBC obituaries have been run in the first quarter of this year compared to the years since 2012.
I was pleased to hear the BBC’s Obituaries Editor, Nick Serpell, sort-of agree with part of my argument. Here’s what he said on the programme:
Before television arrived in the early 1950s, the only really famous people that people came across all the time were movie stars – because they went to the cinema.
In the 50s we had television, that brought more famous people into people’s rooms. Music in particular; we had the growth of rock and roll. Remember The Who sang about ‘my generation’, hoping that they’d die before they got old. But whilst some of them did, the majority of them didn’t. And all these people, in the ‘rise and the growth of celebrity’, if you like, are now reaching that period in their 70s and 80s where they’re going to start to die, and I think that’s causing this.