The Royal Reality Show

Three decades after Charles and Diana’s wedding drew a record TV audience, we’re in for a far bigger spectacular, fit for our multimedia, celebrity-obsessed age. Call it “William and Kate Mate Great.”

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Jun 30, 2011  |  Updated 1:39 PM CDT
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Prince William and Kate Middleton are only just beginning life in the spotlight.

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If we needed any more proof that the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton will be a multimedia spectacular unlike any other, the upcoming nuptials already have been preserved in a form fit – and fitted – for the times: Legos.

If you’re taking a cynical view, the Legoland display, complete with snapped-together versions of Queen Elizabeth and an eerily easily identifiable Elton John, could be seen as an unintended, “Graduate”-like commentary on our plastic age. But perhaps a more nuanced take is that William and his bride-to-be are being treated as mere characters in a show that’s being produced and consumed in as many media as exist.

Three decades after Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding drew a record TV audience of 750 million, we’re in for what the normally staid BBC is calling a “modern royal fairytale.” But in some respects, the April 29 affair is shaping up as a modern royal reality show, in which a photogenic young couple’s every move is being chronicled via all platforms imaginable for a program we’ll call, “William and Kate Mate Great.”

The TV audience for Charles and Diana’s wedding outdrew the Apollo 11 Moon landing of a dozen years earlier. Their rocket ship to icon-hood was a horse-drawn royal coach, giving us an image that spawned a slew of magazine covers and souvenirs ranging from commemorative tea sets to paper dolls.

Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet – on TV and beyond. Here’s a mere sampling of what’s in the works for the wedding of William and his princess-in-waiting: NBCUniveral has created a Royal Wedding iPad app amid plans for blanket television coverage spanning many of its networks – including The Weather Channel, which will broadcast from foggy London. Websites galore have sprouted, including William and Middleton’s own charity-focused homepage.

At least two TV movies are planned – one on Lifetime before the April 29 wedding and one on the Hallmark Channel after. Magazines and other media outlets, tabloid and otherwise, are flooding the Web and newsstands with a constant stream of wedding-related stories (Newsflash: William won’t wear a wedding ring!). 

And it’s not just the media professionals getting in on the game: CNN’s iReport is holding a contest for regular folks desperate to cover the nuptials. Snoop Dogg wrote a song for the big day (William’s bachelor party – not the wedding. The bawdy tune is called “Wet” – and Snoop claims Queen Elizabeth commissioned it). Perhaps most appropriately of all, “My Life on the D-List” reality show star and comic Kathy Griffin will host a Royal Wedding special for the TV Guide Network.

So one big question that arises about what’s stacking up to be the most covered (or over-covered) non-hard-news event in history is why bother? Well, some clearly see dollar (and pound) signs, and with more forms of media than ever before, there are additional potential ways to cash in.

The bigger “why” goes to the audience: Why are so many people fascinated by a couple who, while appearing perfectly nice, enjoy incredible advantages stemming from nothing more than one young man’s birth line, a relic of an outmoded monarchy in a country with eight percent unemployment?

The interest – some might say obsession – likely rests in part in an age-old desire to live vicariously through those with seemingly better lives than the rest of us, whether in fiction realms like the movies or otherwise. These days, it’s mostly otherwise.

The wedding comes at a time when the Web-and-TV-driven increase in media outlets seems to have fueled a greater demand for celebrity news, leading to a downgraded definition of stardom where talent and accomplishment don’t necessarily come into play. After all, what defines the Reality TV Era more than people who are famous for being famous (or infamous, if anyone even bothers to make that distinction anymore)?

In many respects, William’s mother, Diana, was the prototype of the modern Reality TV star. Plucked from obscurity to become a princess, Lady Di was barley 20 when she wed in the biggest media event of the time.

While she grew into her role as an icon, not just for her looks but for her good works, Diana also became a living symbol of the flipside of fame. She certainly couldn't have anticipated the headline-making marital scandals that dogged her for years.

The spotlight’s glare only intensified after Charles and Diana’s breakup, through her 1997 death. She became our most famous victim of drunk driving – and perhaps our best known casualty of a crazed culture of celebrity in which the quest for a picture of a princess provoked a reckless chase through the streets of Paris.

The week of public mourning that followed Diana’s death became the mass media spectacle of its time. Her funeral drew 2.5 billion TV viewers worldwide and stands as one of the first major displays of the Internet’s power to cover major events.

William heads into his wedding with that searing, defining experience of his youth – and without his mum, who would have turned 50 this year. That’s he’s putting himself through all this – instead of say, eloping – suggests the second in line to the British throne has accepted all that comes with his primarily ceremonial duty.

The Royal Air Force officer is at an age – 28 – where he has at least an inking of what he’s in for and hopefully a capacity to deal with it. The same can be said for 29-year-old commoner Middleton, who, after eight years of an on-and-off relationship with William that nearly crumbled under public pressure, appears battle-tested.

That both seem to have a good head on their respective shoulders is part of their appeal, along with their youthful good looks and their general avoidance of missteps. The closest they’ve come to scandal – so far – is the big wedding-band brouhaha.

It’s suck conversation-starting tidbits that feed the frenzy surrounding a wedding that also speaks to our need for mass experiences in a fragmented media age where events that draw worldwide audience are increasingly rare.

Shared media experiences are often driven by news and the news isn’t always good – as with the ongoing nightmare in Japan – increasing the thirst for diversion. The news, as seen with last year’s rescue of the Chilean coal miners, also occasionally brings unexpected moments in which we can take collective joy.

In terms of planned events that draw a worldwide audience, there are, of course, the World Cup and the Oscars, which, while lackluster this year, could be helping stoke the Royal Wedding fever.

The show proved an ad for “The King’s Speech,” which purports to tell the story of William’s great grandfather, King George VI – a monarch by happenstance who on the eve of World War II needs to overcome his stammer to help lead his nation via the first instantaneous mass medium: radio.

If he hasn’t, William might want to chat with his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, whose 1947 wedding to Prince Philip drew 200 million radio listeners and proved fodder for the newsreels of the day. The celebration marked a symbolic return of England after the end of World War II two years earlier, even if the UK and much of Europe was still suffering from deprivation.

She’s also been witness to – and a key player in – all that’s come since, from her coronation to the Charles and Diana soap opera. After nearly 85 years of life in a public eye magnified by the mass media, the Queen knows probably better than anyone what William and his bride can expect.

She certainly can tell them that living happily ever after is too much to ask – and that their journey, along with those of any children they may have, will be undertaken in public. She knows they probably will be tested in ways meaningful and frivolous that they can’t even begin to imagine.

The latest royal couple will be living under a red-hot spotlight that would melt even Legos. Like much of the rest of the world, we’ll be watching at least glimpses of the wedding and offering best wishes to a couple whose most interesting episodes of “William and Kate Mate Great,” for better and worse, are likely yet to come.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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