Jan 24, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Why made-for-TV moments matter during the pandemic

Photo illustration of two old fashioned televisions with intertwined antennas playing footage from the Inauguration

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Erin Schaff-Pool, Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images

In a world where most Americans are isolated and forced to laugh, cry and mourn without friends or family by their side, viral moments can offer critical opportunities to unite the country or divide it.

Driving the news: President Biden's inauguration was produced to create several made-for-social viral moments, a tactic similar to what the Democratic National Committee and the Biden campaign pulled off during the Democratic National Convention.

During the pandemic, crowds can't always be relied on to provide energy and footage, so the moments have to be choreographed by the event organizers.

  • The selection of Amanda Gorman, who went viral following her widely praised poetry reading, was one of several made-for-TV inauguration moments designed to inspire millions of disenfranchised Americans just two weeks after the Capitol was attacked on live television.
  • The choice of Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, who faced down rioters outside the Senate chamber on Jan. 6, to escort Kamala Harris before she was sworn in as vice president made for another viral moment.
  • A stunning fireworks display accompanied Katy Perry as she closed out an evening of well-rehearsed, well-produced musical acts and speeches, including a gathering of three former presidents offering words of encouragement to Biden and the country.

Yes, but: Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump often strategically used television moments to assert dominance or pit the country against itself.

  • Police used tear gas to clear a path for Trump to pose with a bible in front of St. John's Church during racial justice protests.
  • He also triumphantly removed his mask in front of cameras while standing on a White House balcony as he recovered from his COVID-19 infection.
  • Even as the pandemic raged, he used crowds at rallies in an effort to project strength and defiance of the virus.

The big picture: Throughout 2020, television was one of the safest ways millions of Americans could experience live entertainment and share cultural references. A few key moments, some planned and some not, stood out:

  • The fly on Mike Pence's head during the VP debate.
  • April's "One World: Together at Home" performance featuring dozens of celebrities.
  • "Tiger King" became the most-discussed streaming series in the early days of quarantine.
  • Steve Kornacki became a national infatuation during election week.
  • "The Last Dance" became appointment viewing for much of the country on Sunday nights in the spring.

The bottom line: Made-for-TV moments can bring the country together when millions were scared and mourning. Expect the Biden administration to lean into the power of TV in a way that strategically paints the nation in a good light.

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