Thursday, January 31, 2008

Performance Enhancing Drugs

In case you've been sleeping for the last 42 years, this Sunday the sports/media event known as the Super Bowl takes place. This penultimate football event, which might well be called "normal football on steroids," reminds us of all the media attention paid to the use of performance enhancing drugs in professional sports. Recent news reports of performance enhancing drug use have included sports ranging from track and field to cycling to major league baseball. These reports have focused on the transgressions of individual athletes rather than the significance of sports programming in our television culture and its influence on our attitudes concerning drug use.

From a Media Ecology perspective, it is possible to examine television content as a function of the television medium itself. As a "one to many" medium, American television acts to dictate and reinforce acceptable social norms and behavior. The content of television seems to have fallen by accident into three distinct categories : entertainment, news and advertising. In fact, these broad categories of programming each stake out a different level of social behavior to manage and control.

Advertising: TV ads deal with social versus antisocial behavior on a personal level. Television advertisements are full endorsements of performance enhancing drugs, from Pepto Bismol to Claritin to Viagra. Participation in social events and personal relationships is made possible for the individual by the use of the proper product. Sometimes the performance enhancing claim is subtle, as in ads for "smart" cereals, cold medications or vitamin supplements. Sometimes it is overt, as in ads for male and female fragrances, erectile dysfunction medications or body building shampoos.

Entertainment: Television entertainment shows are chiefly concerned with social versus anti-social behavior on an interpersonal level. The archetypal television program sets up one or more characters who exist at the borderline of social acceptance, whether they are juveniles learning the ropes, clown characters who are unaware or otherwise ignore social norms, or villains who attempt to subvert the existing social equilibrium and replace it with one of their own.

In all instances the depiction of rule breaking and resolution acts to reinforce those rules. In terms of drug usage as a breaking of social rules, Showtime's Weeds stands out in particular, though it tends to deal with the supposed social dynamics of the drug trade rather than the psychodynamics of the drug itself. Otherwise, most TV entertainment discussions of drug use and its consequences are relegated to occasional afternoon specials and to all episodes of House.

News: Television infotainment shows (otherwise known as "News Broadcasts") address this social/anti-social opposition at the public level. Public order is disturbed by rogue political activists, events of nature or common criminals. Though the particular infraction may not have been resolved by the time of the newscast, the very act of reporting frames the event in terms of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In each case there are implicit or explicit rules which have been broken and then are reaffirmed. These programs are also full of reports about the drug or alcohol induced exploits of our celebrities, individuals whose very notariety hinges on reporting of their latest binges.

Sports: Where do sports broadcasts fit into to the structure of television content? Sports, as the WWF demonstrates each week, are mainly entertainment broadcasts. Sports participants are tightly bound by the rules of the particular sport. While any given standard entertainment program is about the breaking of rules, sports events are about abiding by rules. Each sport has a cadre of referees, line judges or umpires whose sole purpose is to make sure that the rules of the game are strictly adhered to.

In that sense, all sports are totally "made up." That is, the parties involved, no matter how adversarial they may seem, all agree to the set of rules of play. Rules determine what is allowed and what isn't, and ultimately who wins and who loses. What is acceptable or unacceptable behavior varies from sport to sport, but some set of rules always applies. At the same time, the outcome of the sporting event is not determined. The playing of a sport may be entertainment, but the result of that play is news.

This is the problem with sports programming. It is both news and entertainment. It crosses established boundaries of television content. It is a "made up" activity, but not in the same way that a comedy or drama is "made up."

So we have a basic opposition within the content structure presented by American television. On the one hand we have advertisements, where the performance enhancing drugs or products must be used, and on the opposite end we have sports where the performance enhancing drug must not be used. In between we have differing interations of this primary opposition, with entertainment and news content reflecting multiple variations of this use/don't use opposition.

The point is that we aren't concerned with the effect of drug use, or the unfair advantages performance enhancing drugs might give to advertising, entertainment or news personalities. We are concerned with the advantages performance enhancing drugs might give to professional atheletes. In their case, the use of any drug is itself a violation of the rules which state that, though any given athelete might already represent an outlier of norms concerning physical strength and ability, they shouldn't do anything "artificial" to enhance their already considerable talents.

It is not an accident that the way television content is differentiated conforms to Levi-Strauss's Canonical Formula regarding mythology:


In this case, the ultimate transformation promoted by corporate television (use our advertisers' products) begins with sports fx(a), the function of which is to avoid performance enhancing drugs, ie, to remain in a "natural" state. Proceeding through analogous functional areas where drug use is largely ignored fy(b) (entertainment) or is a tolerated aberration fx(b)(News), we arrive at the final iteration where the desired state is acceptance of performance enhancing drugs or products as the necessary state of being f(a-1)(x) (advertising).

The uproar created by sport-related drug use is a function of the relative position of sports in the structure of television programming, not the drug use itself.

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