A series of images and short video clips flash up on the large screen in the conference room. Some are of infamous moments from reality television shows, others stills of minor celebrity misdemeanours. A quick succession of newspaper headlines and magazine covers follow, each detailing lurid incidents in the lives of media nonentities. Finally the screen goes blank. Peterson puts down the remote controller and addresses the rest of the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem. The people are getting bored. The people, our audience, are tired. Tired of the repetition. Reality TV has become as far removed from reality that ratings for these shows have plummeted or they have been pulled. Big Brother became a joke that just wasn’t funny any more.”
His audience do not seem to be bored or tired. Besuited in Armani, Boateng or Prada, they watch him with rapt attention, lining each side of the long glass table that stretch the length of the conference room. To Peterson’s left six faces stare back at him; to his right, five. An empty chair occupies the final place on Peterson’s right; empty because it is his own. Touch-screen tablets and laptops are arrayed the length of the table, the occasional hand reaches out to make notes. At the end of the room bright sunlight filters in through the protective film coating the floor to ceiling glass, preventing the room from becoming too hot and the occupants dazzled. The familiar skyline of central London stretches out to the horizon indicating that they are many floors up in a high-rise office block. A large swivel chair occupies the head of the table, the daylight silhouetting the heavily built man sitting in it. His features are obscured by shadow but the light catches the top of his head. He is bald and black and his shoulders exceed the width of the chair. There are no media devices on the table in front of him, only a thick-cut crystal ashtray into which he regularly taps the end of his Double Toro cigar. A small white plastic ‘no smoking’ sign sits in the middle of the table. It has a large melted burn mark on it where someone has stubbed out a cigar.
Peterson continues, “The question is, how do we get our audience back?”
His colleagues break into an excited babble. They lean in towards each other, chattering and gesturing. Laptops are flipped open, tablets are tapped. Phrases such as “…core demographic…”, “…subtle audience variation…”, …paradigm shift…”, “…attention retention…”, “…consumer resilience…”, sally forth across the table. Only two people remain detached from these conversations; Peterson and the cigar-smoking Man. He takes a long, slow drag on the Double Toro, the glow briefly illuminating his face otherwise hidden by shadow. He studies the gathering with faintly amused interest. Peterson studies him with interest as he knows what comes next. The Man coughs quietly, not out of discomfort or to clear one’s throat but in the subtle ‘Excuse me, if I might have your attention’ sort of way. No-one breaks from their discussions; they didn’t hear, or, if they did, they choose to ignore. Peterson raises and eyebrow and smiles. The Man gentle drums his fingers on the table. The hands are large and powerful. Each impact of finger upon glass sends a tremor the length of the table. He remains unheeded. He coughs again. This time, loud, sharp and an unmistakable demand for attention. Ten faces snap round towards him in horrified silence. One does not ignore the CEO of a major broadcasting organisation without repercussions. Peterson relishes every squirm, every fidget that his colleagues make, every drop of nervous perspiration that they exude. This is his moment and he wishes it will go on forever.
Clouds slide across the face of the sun, temporarily shifting the contrast of light in the room. The silhouette becomes a man, a mountain of a man who fills out one of the finest bespoke suits to come out of Saville Row. He is, as we have already mentioned, black and bald. Probably early fifties. His eyes, heavy-lidded, seem to bore into the soul of everyone in the room simultaneously. At least that is how it feels to them. Faint wisps of smoke tumble from flaring nostrils like the escaping gas from a discharged pistol. The mouth, wide, sealed, without a hint of emotion and set within a jaw strong and belligerent. It is an intelligent face, a commanding face, the kind of face you wouldn’t fuck with. The silence continues. It is no longer merely uncomfortable, it is excruciating. Finally the man smiles, displaying teeth that almost fluoresce in their whiteness. Except for the gold one. That simply dazzles. He takes another pull on his cigar, exhales slowly letting the smoke drift down the room, and then speaks in a voice that rumbles like aftershocks.
He looks down one side of the table. “Now then ladies…,” he nods politely to the one woman in the room, “…and gentlemen…”. He surveys the other side of the table, “…you heard Peterson…”
Peterson notices that the man briefly looks at him as he says his name, the eyes seemingly smiling more than the mouth if that is possible. The Man continues.
“….your ideas.” A long pause. “Please.” He leans back in his chair just as the sun bursts out from behind the clouds. He seems to retreat back into the shadows with just the glow of the cigar and the outline of his improbably wide shoulders giving away the fact he is there at all. Silence. He leans forward again, resting his elbows on the table, hands loosely clasped. His head remains static but his gaze flits from one side of the table, “Anyone?” – silence – to the other. “Anyone at all?”
The silence remains. The smile has disappeared from his pale lips and the embers of any warmth behind those eyes have been extinguished. He rests his chin on his hands and glowers at his executives, the epitome of broadcasting management. He does not like what he sees and likes less what he hears. Which is, of course, nothing.
Peterson mirrors his actions, apart from the glowering. He has no need for anger. This is all part of the show, mainly for his own benefit. He has been commissioning television dramas for long enough that he knows how to create tension, atmosphere. He doubts any of the dozens of scriptwriters that he has hired and fired over the years could do better right now. Someone coughs, nervously. Someone else shuts their laptop. Everyone remains mute.
“Please?” Almost a plea from the head of the table. Almost but not quite. A plea would indicate desperation. Exasperation is nearer the mark.
A hand slowly rises from a charcoal suit with a bright red tie. On another other day it might be considered quite a sharp combination. But not today. “A game show?” says the suit, voice meek, trembling and instantly regretting drawing attention to himself. The hand slowly sinks back to the suit’s lap. The rest of the room stare at him.
From the head of the table the eyes that matter most home in. They focus; hawk on prey, sniper on target. They remain that way for around ten seconds. Certainly long enough that the suit can feel that his shirt is sticking to his back. He has not felt this way since primary school.
“A game show?” repeats the resonating voice from the head of the table. “That’s it?” He sounds disappointed, as though he is addressing them like a parent would a mischievous child. “That’s it? All of you here and that’s it? You represent the combined creative talent of this corporation…,” he pauses to take another pull on his cigar, “…and the best you can come up with…no, the only thing you can come up with, is ‘a game show’?” He leans back again. As if conscious of the mood in the room the sun has hidden itself again. The gathered suits detect a noticeable chill. Cigar smoke rises in a swirling pattern as he waves his hand to emphasis his next point. “Fuck me, gentlemen…,” he nods again to the single female in the room, “…and lady; we may as well roll over and admit defeat. Last one out switch off the lights.”
There is a palpable sense of relief as laptops and tablets are gathered up and the meeting begins to break up. The suits almost collectively rise as one. Peterson shoots a glance to the head of the table. His eyes meet a gaze of equal alarm and surprise. This is an unexpected turn. The Man stands up sharply and slams his hand down hard on the table, the single gold ring chiming on the glass. The ashtray bounces and flips over, depositing carbonised tobacco across the surface.
“I was being metaphorical, for fuck’s sake!” he bellows. “Sit down!”
The suits sheepishly hurry back to their seats. The man remains standing, towering over them; a behemoth in exceptional tailoring.
“Jesus Christ! And you’re supposed to be the driving force, the creative cream of this organisation? You lot couldn’t wipe your own arses without someone telling you how to do it,” the Man snaps. He glances over to Peterson. “Fortunately, someone here knows which way the wind is blowing, and more importantly, how hard.” He turns, takes a few steps and stares out of the windows across London. He sucks hard on the cigar, then exhales slowly with deep sense of satisfaction, the fug enveloping him making him appear almost ethereal and, without turning back growls, “Peterson; tell these morons the future.”
Peterson stands, nods to the Man gratefully though he has his back to him, and picks up the remote. He stabs at the buttons and the big screen bursts back into life. An array of stills from once-popular shows appear, a collage of banality. He addresses his audience again, “The trouble with reality shows, ladies and gentlemen, was that they weren’t very…,” he pauses for effect, as though searching for the obvious, “…real. Everything was contrived: the contestants were carefully selected to ensure an eclectic mix of mutters, the environment was rigid so the contestants and audience got used to it very quickly. No-one travelled outside the confines of that environment so adaptation was limited.” He turns to the screen, raises the remote and the picture changes to a series of black and white images; circus and travelling show members from years long gone. Each with an apparent special attribute; the bearded lady, ‘Siamese’ twins, giants and midgets galore, strongmen, fakirs, tattooed women, a montage of the weird and unusual. He turns slowly back to the others in the room, allowing the images to sink in for a few seconds. “If truth be told, ladies and gentlemen, these TV shows are just the modern day equivalent to the old-time freak show…”
The picture changes again. It is of a street-walker, face pixellated but plenty of flesh on show. Not very inviting flesh either.
“…or a clapped whore; a cheap thrill over in a matter of minutes,” Peterson says, leaning on his knuckles on the glass table. He gazes around the room. His audience are still with him. No-one speaks, they just sit, mesmerised. He continues. “Trouble is, of course, the public cannot get enough of this shit, assuming it is a fresh turd and not one that has been around for months and trodden into the carpet. They lap it up and dare to ask for more. This is the undiscerning, low-brow, low IQ, no attention-span generation. The programmes? Mere wank-fodder for the proletariat.”
Furious typing on laptops, tablets record every word.
“But…,” he says, finger wagging to stress the point, “…the appetite of the fuckwits must be satisfied. And we, ladies and gentlemen, are the ones to do it.”
A hand is nervously raised. It is the charcoal suit and red tie again. Peterson looks at him, curious. He nods to the man. “Yes?” he says, softly and not unkindly. The suit isn’t aware that someone else has taken an interest in what he has to say. The colossus, by the window has turned and is regarding the suit with inquisitive eyes.
“More of the same but different?” the suit asks, a little hesitantly.
Peterson’s gaze momentarily strays towards the Man who catches his eye and smiles. The suit, conscious to this exchange, swivels round in horror to find the Man looking at him, grinning. The hand, still raised, moves to loosen his tie. Whether this is done deliberately or sub-consciously only the suit knows but the red tie is undone and laid upon the table. Peterson smiles, benevolently and says, “A very good question, Stevens. Let me explain.”
Peterson turns back to the screen, swinging the remote round like a gun-slinger. A new image appears. It is simple text and reads F. A. R. Vision.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to FAR Vision: Fantasy Alternative Reality. Where the unreal becomes real!” Peterson starts to circle the room, stopping behind each chair in turn as he speaks. “Imagine a show where the contestants can be anywhere, in any time. Imagine a show where what they see, the viewer sees. I mean what the contestants really see; not just a camera but through their eyes.”
Stevens’s hand starts to rise again. Peterson notices, smiles, and shakes his head. Stevens drops his hand back into his lap, sweating palm upon sweating palm.
“No trick CCTV, no computer simulation. The eye is the camera and the era is whatever we choose.” Peterson has finished his circuit of the room and stands before the screen again. He waits, anticipating the response. He savours this moment. There is a stunned silence which is eventually broken by Stevens spluttering “Impossible!”
Peterson has, of course, foreseen this reaction. He smiles benignly at the charcoal suit and red tie. “No, not impossible,” he replies. “Very possible. In fact, we’ve already achieved it.”
The responses to this are audible. Gasps, low murmurs of conversation with neighbours; there is an air of incredulity in the room. To break this spell Peterson speaks, and as he does so, takes off his jacket and tie. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…” He unbuttons his shirt revealing a sleek electronic device that encompasses his lower neck with a small gap at the front. It is elegant, has the appearance of brushed aluminium, and a number of thin lights on either side fluoresce red, blue or green. Peterson finishes his piece before the rest of the room has a chance to react. “…the Torc.” He quickly grabs and jabs at the remote. The image that flashes up on the screen is of the rest of the room. The image is constantly moving, from face to face, to the Man, back to the table. The Man grins, nods, and takes his seat again at the head of the table. It takes only a moment for the gathering to comprehend what they are seeing; they are seeing themselves through Peterson’s eyes. They erupt into spontaneous applause and cheering. After around twenty seconds Peterson signals for quiet so he can resume his presentation. The suits retake their seats, softly whispering to their neighbours. “To bastardise a well known-expression, that’s not all folks.” He reaches inside his jacket, now hanging on the back of his chair, and takes out a phone. “Excuse me a moment whilst I get the app up and running….ah, there we are. Now, what shall we try first?”
Puzzled expressions around the room.
“How about Camelot?” says Peterson and the image on the screen changes instantly. The table is now round. Suits of finest silk and wool are now armour. Aeron chairs are now wooden high-backed pieces with intricate carvings. The walls, stone; the windows, mere arrow slits. The assemble see themselves through his eyes rise and applaud. Except the Man, of course. He remains sitting, smiling, puffing on his cigar.
“Or how about the House of Commons, around the nineteenth century?” Peterson suggests. They now see themselves standing either side of the despatch box, waving papers furiously in the air. The Man sits in the Speakers Chair, his self-satisfied smile unwavering. Before his audience has chance to respond Peterson is already moving on. “How about the Wild West?”
The glass conference table disappears to be replaced by several rough wooden bar tables. Laptops and tablets become playing cards and drinking vessels. The comfy Aerons appear to be chairs and stools. Fine tailoring is now leather chaps, denims and heavy cotton shirts. Everyone sports a Stetson. Gunbelts hung low on hips. Fingers stray towards holstered weapons that are not really there. The suits look around. Everything appears normal yet when they look back at the screen they are in some dingy Tombstone bar. Peterson flips through several more scenes before returning to the present. His audience is in raptures. He appeals for quiet which is eventually granted. “Thank you, thank you, and welcome to the future of television.” He buttons his shirt, sits and remains silent as questions are fired at him, just smiles and idly fiddles with his now-redundant tie. There is clearly some frustration at his reticence. A cough comes from the opposite end of the table. All heads pivot instantly towards the Man. He speaks.
“Thank you Peterson for that splendid demonstration, and thank you all for attending.”
“Reality tv is on its way out; which, incidentally ladies and gentlemen, so are you. I just wanted you to catch a glimpse of what Peterson rightly calls the future of television. before you cleared your desks.”
Shock. Stunned shock. Some feeble protest from the more assertive of the room.
“That’s right; ALL OF YOU…”
They start to rise, gathering up computers and smartphones. Peterson remains where he sits. This is the final move; the coup de grâce, and he is loving every minute.
“…except you, ‘Game show boy’; whatever your name is…”
Stevens straightens and looks the Man in the eye. “Me sir? The name is Stevens, sir.”
“…Yes, well, Stevens; at least you had the balls to say something…”
A large, accusing finger pointed around the room.
“…unlike the rest of these mutes. Congratulations lad; you’re Peterson’s bitch. Now fuck off and make me a very rich man.”