The distinction between entertainment and news has become blurrier over the past few decades and constitutes one of the many changes in the media landscape that digital media has brought along. The power of 'the public' within the world of digital media has caused us to enter an era of media abundance, contrasting the media scarcity we dealt with previously. This media abundance means that there is a wide range of sources and information to choose from, as basically everyone can now create their own news or respond to anything that is being distributed. This has great consequences for journalism, as '[j]ournalists exercising their gatekeeping power now do so in competition with sources able to speak to the public directly' (Carlson, 2016, p. 237).
Due to digital and social media, the role of the audience does not end at receiving the news anymore, now they also play a more prominent role in the creation and distribution of news. Thus, new forms of media have granted the public a lot more power in the world of media. As the youngest generations are used to this way of receiving news, traditional media like newspapers and television often do not speak to them that much. The more entertaining, playful way in which they are used to receiving their news is nothing like the language and format used in traditional types of media. However, it is interesting to note that certain media platforms are aware of the difference between digital media's 'infotainment' and the traditional media, and are adapting their format to it. A very successful example of this is the Dutch television show 'Zondag met Lubach', in which the host Arjen Lubach delivers critique on current political and societal matters in a satirical way.
In this paper, the show will be introduced as an example of ‘infotainment’. Further, it will be used to argue that the entertaining approach to news, which has been initiated by mass media around the late 1980s and early 1990s, works very well in today’s media world to inform people and make them more aware. Television shows like Zondag met Lubach use a similar concept to that of digital media, where audiences are engaged and invited to participate. A way in which the show tries to achieve this is by actively employing mobile phone applications. The Kamergotchi application, which will be discussed later, is an example of this. It shows that the television program is engaging in a type of media convergence and that it is effective in gaining the audience’s attention and participation. Further on, it will be argued that infotainment programs could be seen as very important in solving the negative effect of the filter bubble, as discussed by Pariser (2011). It provides arguments to look at infotainment not as anything less than our old, ‘serious’ ways of informing the public, but as something that is very effective in reaching its purpose in this era and therefore very valuable.
Zondag met Lubach as infotainment
The term ‘infotainment’ has come up somewhere during the past two or three decades. It is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘broadcast material which is intended both to entertain and to inform’, which is why the term is a blend of the words ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’. Stockwell (2004) states in his article that infotainment refers to ‘a grab bag of styles, formats and sub-genres whose only common feature is that they fall somewhere in the space between the two traditional pillars of television, information and entertainment’ (p. 2), which shows that the term is very broad and quite vague in its definition. Examples of sub-genres that would fit the overarching ‘infotainment’ genre are tabloid news, talk shows, mockumentaries and news sitcoms. In general, infotainment is often discussed as a problematic phenomenon and said to cause the ‘dumbing down’ of the public (McNair, 1999, p. 2), thus, it is mainly approached negatively.
Although Lubach himself always tries to avoid his show being marked as ‘journalism’ (e.g. School, 2018; Fortuin, 2018), it is evident that the show has a considerable impact within the area of journalism. For example, he once made an episode where he discussed the new wiretap law (in Dutch: ‘sleepwet’) that the Dutch government was planning to introduce. At the same time, a group of people had taken initiative for a referendum on the proposed new law, but to make it happen they would need 300.000 signatures. At the time, they only had 120.000 and it seemed like they were never going to get to the required amount, but after the Zondag met Lubach episode was broadcast they got to 300.000 signatures within a week (Van Lonkhuyzen, 2017). It proved the significant journalistic power of the show, as well as the fact that Lubach is aware of it himself: it turned out that beforehand, he had already warned the hosts of the sleepwet.nl website to prepare for a great number of visitors that night.
It is understandable that Lubach prefers to let his show be known as comedy and satire instead of journalism, as this would require him to take a lot more responsibility for his statements and could cause the show to lose its entertaining, cabaret-like aspect, which is exactly what makes his show different from conventional journalism. However, since it has been proven to have great impact on the public’s awareness of certain matters and their opinions, it is clear that it functions as a news source to a lot of people. The show succeeds in reaching audiences that traditional channels are failing to reach. The matters discussed on Lubach have often already been in the newspapers and on the news, but suddenly receive more attention after being discussed on the show. Therefore, Zondag met Lubach can be seen as a form of infotainment.
A threat to democracy
The phenomenon of infotainment is overall well liked by the masses. However, the current ideas on whether infotainment is a positive development or not are mostly negative. Something that is argued a lot is that infotainment poses a threat to democracy, for example by Blumler & Gurevitch (1995). These critics reason that the growing reliance of informative television programs on entertainment elements leads to a ‘crisis of communication for citizenship’ (p. 203). They fear that the growing presence of infotainment will mean a decline in political discourse on television, something that is necessary to evoke discussion and debate. Due to an increase in the number of entertainment programs, the public might be more likely to zap away from programs with heavy political content (Brants & Neijens, 1998, p. 150). As a consequence of that, politicians could choose to show up on entertainment programs and talk shows instead of defending their political ideas in a broadcasted debate. It could lead to a political process in which the parties are less known for their ideas and ideals, but more for the personalities of their leaders, which could cause people to make an uninformed vote and cause the ‘dumbing down’ of the public discourse.
A similar statement was made by Bernstein (1992), who wrote an article about ‘the idiot culture’. He described journalism as having become ‘illusionary and delusionary (...) distorted by celebrity and the worship of celebrity; by the reduction of news to gossip, which is the lowest form of news; by sensationalism, which is always a turning away from a society's real condition; and by a political and social discourse that we (…) are turning into a sewer’ (p. 22). Likewise there are many others, and their main idea is clear: the fact that the line between informative and entertaining programs is becoming blurrier is a negative development, and poses a threat to society.
The opportunities of infotainment
However, there are many other ways to look at the increase of infotainment television shows from a more positive point of view. For example, Stockwell (2004) argues that, instead of dumbing down the public discourse, infotainment might ‘actually offer something above and beyond traditional news and current affairs programmes’ (p. 15). It could be seen as a shift in the format of informative programs, which now satisfies the audience’s desire for journalism that communicates with them. Now that the public has become an active player in news distribution and creation process due to digital media, people are no longer interested in the ‘journalist’s (…) privileged world-view’ (p. 16). The traditional ways of distributing news no longer speak to the younger generations, thus, this shift to infotainment can be seen as necessary. It could explain why discussing a certain matter on Zondag met Lubach creates much more awareness among the masses than mentioning it on the news does.
In my opinion, it is a positive development that programs like Zondag met Lubach understand and adapt to the desires and expectations of today’s audience. Lubach succeeds in communicating with the public by not taking on the elitist attitude that we are used to from the traditional news, but by diminishing the distance between himself and the public. On his show, he provides extensive explanations on matters that are also discussed in the news, and makes them more interesting by using comedy and satire. Also, it is evident that he has a good understanding of how social media works and how he can use it to his advantage. For example, around the time of the elections in 2017, the show came up with an app called ‘Kamergotchi’. It was inspired by the ‘Tamagotchi’, a handheld digital pet that was very popular around 1997. The ‘pet’ you had to take care of on this application was a member of one of the Dutch political parties, and it became highly popular. A few weeks after the launch of the application, Arjen Lubach discussed some conclusions that he had come to after analysing the players’ behaviours: Jesse Klaver turned out to be the Kamergotchi that was best taken care of (ANP, 2017). Aside from that, he composed a sounding to predict how many seats each party was going to get after the elections, which he also shared during the program. Lubach anticipated the powers of digital media in a clever way, and the Kamergotchi-app became a huge hit amongst the audience. It is a perfect example of how Lubach uses media convergence in order to get the audience’s attention and involvement, and that it is very effective.
Adjusting the format
One reason why I think television shows like Zondag met Lubach as valuable is because I believe it is of great importance that the traditional media is not faded away by the new digital media. As mentioned previously, Blumler & Gurevitch (1995) saw the rise of infotainment as a possible threat to democracy. I do not agree that it is infotainment that poses this threat, we should be more afraid of the effects of social media’s algorithms and the ‘filter bubbles’ they create, as explained by Pariser (2011). In his book, he discusses how, at first, he had great faith that the Internet was going to redemocratize society, but that he does not see this happening anymore. Rather, he states that ‘[d]emocracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we’re being offered parallel but separate universes’ (p. 4). As the algorithmic engines on the Internet try to predict, derived from our previous Internet behaviour, what we would want to see next, they filter out anything that they believe we would not click on. This is how these ‘parallel universes’ come to life: the filter bubbles, which constitute a ‘unique universe of information for each of us (…) which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information’ (p. 8). As our individual filter bubbles are different from each other and continuously indoctrinate us with our own ideas, they could cause the loss of shared facts and a collective memory. Since a well-functioning democracy relies on these shared facts, it poses a serious threat; if we all no longer receive news through traditional media and start relying only on our separate filter bubbles, democracy could stop functioning.
To make sure that the younger generations will not neglect the traditional media completely, these media platforms have to adapt to their desires. The ‘new audience’ wants to participate in the news process and feel connected. Clearly, a television program like Zondag met Lubach has found a way to anticipate the format of digital media and the new needs of the public. Thus, I believe it is unjust that so many people approach infotainment programs like this one as a negative development. It can provide a means to make sure that a collective memory of the masses remains, and would therefore not threaten, but could actually help foster democracy.
Saving the democratic system
One thing to me is very clear: if we want to ensure that our democratic system can keep existing, we cannot get stuck in our personal filter bubble. This is something that the traditional media should take care of. The elitist, traditional style of journalism does not interest the new public anymore, and it is necessary that the format is changed. Infotainment provides a way to keep the audience engaged and interested in television. Looking at the success and great influence of an infotainment television show like Zondag met Lubach, it is very effective for that matter. From this, I derive my belief that infotainment should be valued instead of feared. We should not approach infotainment as a threat to democracy - it could actually be a way to save it.
ANP (5 March, 2017). ‘Lubach: Jesse Klaver is de best verzorgde Kamergotchi’. Het Parool.
Bernstein, C. (8 June, 1992). ‘The Idiot Culture’. The New Republic, p. 22-28.
Blumler, J., & Gurevitch, M. (1995). ‘The Crisis of Public Communication’. Routledge.
Brants, K., & Neijens, P. (1998). ‘The Infotainment of Politics’, Political Communication. 15:2, p. 149-164.
Fortuin, A. (17 September 2018). ‘Er zit een grens aan de politieke impact van Zondag met Lubach’. NRC.
Van Lonkhuyzen, L. (9 October 2017). ‘Het sleepwetreferendum, mede mogelijk gemaakt door Lubach’. NRC.
McNair, B. (1999). ‘Journalism and Democracy: An Evaluation of the Political Public Sphere’. Routledge.
Oxford Dictionaries. Definition Infotainment.
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School, J. (11 September 2018). ‘Zondag met Lubach: satire met journalistieke middelen’. Vrij Nederland.
Stockwell, S. (2004). ‘Reconsidering the Fourth Estate: The functions of infotainment’. School of Arts, Griffith University.