Monday, February 29, 2016

(Core Post 3) I Told Myself I Wouldn't Write About Survivor...

So I didn't!

Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, in their chapter "Playing TV's Democracy Game," outline the intricate potentialization of "good" citizenship in voting-based programs such as American Idol. Their concern is less whether the democratic processes in these shows are culturally good or bad, per se, but more how these shows harness those processes in order to engage viewers. Producers of these reality shows "tap into" a cultural deference for democratic notions (via the show's voting apparatus) that are an integral component of the viewer's perception of their own duties as citizens.

I would argue--and I do not think Ouellette and Hay would necessarily disagree--that democratic notions are simply one aspect of "good citizenship" that reality television producers construct shows around. ABC's short-lived reality show The Mole (2001-2004) is one such example. On that show, ten strangers compete as a group to complete Missions that are assigned a cash prize. If the group completes the Mission, that cash goes into the "jackpot," but if they fail they lose that money. However, one of the contestants is a Mole, and is tasked with preventing the other contestants from completing these Missions. Any money lost from a successful Mole sabotage would go into the Mole's "pot." At the end of each episode, contestants take a quiz on the possibly identity of the Mole; the person who scores the lowest is eliminated. When three contestants remain (the Mole is always one of the final three), each person takes a final quiz. The contestant who scores the best wins whatever earnings the group earned from the Missions. Producers often stated throughout the show that "clues" were buried into the episodes; viewers were also invited to take each episode's quiz online to see if they could correctly guess the Mole's identity. Here, the producers distill Cold War-paranoia that today manifests in xenophobic rhetoric about the amorality of illegal immigrants who walk among our communities.

Although I cited an example of "good" citizenship that can also do our country considerable harm, I do not view reality television with nearly as much antipathy as, say, Anna McCarthy does in her article. I think there are also positive cultural precepts that are engaged through reality programming such as Survivor, The Amazing Race, and American Idol (pre-Jennifer Lopez). I would argue that reality television is not in and of itself culturally detrimental, and its effects are as nuanced as any other television genre.


  1. I think your point is great, Jon, and I do think there are other cultural elements that go into good citizenship. Your discussion of the Mole (a great show in the first season because it was so dark—and the place where Anderson Cooper got his start before he was on CNN) reminded me of the British game show "Golden Balls," which put the Prisoners Dilemma into a game. There's a great podcast episode from RadioLab about it and how one man deciding to be "bad" changed the game.

    I would go further than you and say that many competition reality shows are enhanced by producers prodding and enabling players to do things they might not otherwise do. Clearly Lifetime's "UnREAL" illustrates this well. In last night's The Bachelor "fantasy suite" episode, one woman drove to the bachelor's hotel outside of a prescribed meeting to tell him she loved him. He responded quickly and told her he didn't love her and then sent her home without a rose. She clearly had to work with producers (and a driver and camera and sound team) to organize that... and we have to question whose idea it was in the first place. Either she had an idea and the producer didn't say for her not to, or it was the producer's idea to get her to make a bad choice.

    This raises important questions about citizenship and whether it's ethical to help a contestant do something they probably shouldn't. This is close to entrapment (with much lower stakes). This is part of the game, and, likely, the contestant could say no to the producer, but they could also be manipulating them for a better events and better ratings. We shouldn't limit citizenship to what's in front of the camera, but also look behind it.

    1. Thanks for your response, Aaron. I hadn't even considered producer intervention, but that raises a ton of interesting questions. In almost all reality shows you can feel the "unseen hand" of the producers guiding events for maximum drama (even our beloved Survivor is guilty of this). While the ethics of the producers are certainly dubious--the intrinsic manipulation of this is foregrounded in "UnREAL," at least from what I've seen--it does create a certain haziness about the morals of the contestants. That's a whole can of worms, really, since depending on the show some contestants will be there for the experience, or the money, or the fame, etc.

      Thanks for pointing that out, I was really think of the citizenship in terms of the structural themes of the competition. But there are other facets to these shows that complicate our notions of good citizenship.