Reality TV Is Undemocratic

Reality Surveillance Cartoon

Reality Surveillance Cartoon

The adjective, “democratic,” like its somewhat more dramatic modern ancestor, “revolutionary,” is rapidly becoming one of the more overused and under-defined terms in the promotional lexicon of the “interactive” era. In its broadest sense, the term is invoked to indicate that the public has been given a choice of some sort, or even more generally that it has been provided with the opportunity to “participate.” Thus, the booming reality TV genre – of a piece with the flexible, interactive ethos of the networked economy – has found itself caught up in the enthusiastic rhetoric of technologically facilitated “democracy.”

Highlighting the ready conflation of politics with shopping embedded in this rhetoric, we are told, for example, that, “The popularity of this format with youth…has a lot to do with their growing up in a democratized society, where the Internet, Web cams and other technologies give the average Joe the ability to personalize his entertainment” (Gardyn, 2001; 39). The equation seems to travel arm-in-arm with the popularity of the genre. One commentator, writing about the success of reality shows in Malaysia, noted that, “Viewers get to vote to help determine the winners. People debate the merits of their candidates in office corridors, chat rooms, restaurants…. You cannot get any more democratic: the people have the power here and they are itching to use it” (Samat, 2004).

Similarly, the overwhelming popularity of the Chinese Super Girl pop-star contest led to repeated invocations of the (supposedly revolutionary) political implications of allowing Chinese audiences to “vote” (although this word was not used by the show). In an article titled “Democracy Idol,” The Economist, invoking the allegedly democratic character of the show, made much of the fact that the state-run publication, Beijing Today, ran a headline asking, “Is Super Girl a Force for Democracy?” The article’s breathless lead exclaimed that China was, “trying to digest the implications of a popular vote involving millions of people across the country” (“Democracy Idol,” 2005). Perhaps the notion of “voting” with one’s dollars – or cents, in the case of Super Girl – typifies The Economist‘s tacit notion of what counts as democracy.

Those in both the academic and political arenas have similarly discerned in reality TV the symptoms of democratic desire – and perhaps a model for political revitalization.

As the New York Times put it after the host of American Idol (misleadingly) noted that more votes had been cast during the season finale than for any U.S. president, “Idol may strike some of its fans as more genuinely democratic than the real democratic process. The popular vote carries the day without any interference from an electoral college” (Stanley, 2006).

In the U.K., the success of Big Brother led to a report outlining the lessons to be learned from the show about revitalizing democratic politics. It also resulted in the appointment of the chairman of the company that brought the show to the U.K. to the Conservative Party’s Commission for Democracy.

More recently, media scholar Henry Jenkins invoked the observation by political consultant and online fund-raising guru Joe Trippi that American Idol anticipates the interactive revolution: “We want the power to choose…. In every industry, in every segment of our economy, the power is shifting over to us” (qtd. in Jenkins, 2006).

Ryan Seacrest on American Idol

Ryan Seacrest on American Idol

This is more than a hangover from the techno-euphoria of the late 1990s – it’s a very tempting promise. It envisions a world that would be wonderful to live in but bears little resemblance to our own.

In the wake of recent revelations about the systematic concentration of power in the hands of an executive branch that cloaks itself in secrecy as it aggressively pursues policies that exacerbate political and economic inequality at home while costing the lives of tens of thousands abroad, it is hard not to write with a certain sense of urgency about the need for critical engagement with the promise of interactivity. An unexamined preoccupation with the incipiently “democratic” character of interactive forms of marketing and pop culture runs the danger of providing cover for the unprecedented concentration of unaccountable economic and political power. In the U.S., the same multi-national media conglomerate that serves up Bush administration propaganda with one hand doles out pop culture “democracy” (American-Idol style) with the other – and uses the proceeds from both to expand its new media holdings.

As new, interactive technologies become increasingly accessible, the challenge is to examine what we might mean when we invoke the notion of democracy. An important starting point would be to consider why reality TV is not democratic. Those who write about it in the popular press and the academic world are careful to point out the obvious: that, with the exception of political reality shows like Vote for Me, such programming has little to do with politics, policies, or political representation. Still, the argument goes, it serves as a metaphor for popular empowerment. And in these postmodern times the distinction between the metaphorical and literal has become as quaint and outdated as the Geneva Conventions are to the Bush administration.

A taste for “participation” cultivated in the marketplace for culture presumably spills over into whatever other realms might still remain. If the literary public sphere anticipated the political one, reality TV voting might serve as the harbinger of the electronic town hall. Jenkins thus imagines a world in which, “the response to reality TV teaches modes of engaging critically with television that may slide into activism around the Iraq war” (Jenkins, 2003).

Freedom is Compliance

Freedom is Compliance

As we await the migration of fans from (the former) to, it might be worthwhile to consider why reality TV might not provide a particularly good metaphor for democracy. As such, it is little more than the digital-era update of the equation of democracy and the “free” market.

Participation and choice are necessary for democracy, but not just any forms are sufficient. Very different types of participation get lumped together in the democratic promise of interactivity. Sweatshop labor and free labor are both forms of participation (and tightly constrained “free” choice), but not necessarily power sharing. Reality TV is, as Anna McCarthy neatly put it, a “mode of production” (2004) – one whose means remain beyond the reach of the vast majority of its participants. In this respect, reality TV “democracy” embodies Schumpeter’s formulation just as thoroughly as the elitist politics with which it has been contrasted: “Democracy does not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of the terms ‘people’ and ‘rule'” (Coleman, 2003; p. 37).

The ostensible anti-elitism mobilized by what might be described as reality TV’s “savvy reduction” – its ongoing fascination with a simple and repetitive form of demystification – is no more democratic than the Bush administration’s cynical (and profoundly undemocratic) populism.

To argue that reality-TV-inspired politics should, in a gesture of democratic demystification, defer to the common sense wisdom that politics is pursued, “as much for the joy of control as for the benefit of the nation” (Shakespeare in Coleman, 2003, p. 42) is to embrace the savvy faux-populism of George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, the highlight of which was his willingness, in a flight of self-fulfilling prescience, to foreground the untrustworthiness of politicians themselves: “We don’t trust bureaucrats in Washington, DC. We don’t believe in planners and deciders making decisions on behalf of America” (Mitchell, 2000 – back before Bush’s post-9/11 transmogrification into “The Decider”). In short, “we’re no longer going to treat voters as dupes by keeping up the pretense that we’re driven by anything but the narrowest forms of self-interest” – a campaign strategy that proved both effective and devastatingly accurate, as evidenced by a growing litany of charges of corruption and cronyism that plagued the administration.

The thoroughly political aspect of politics is not captured by the savvy concession that those who engage in it are, after all, “only human.” That is to say that they are self-interested and driven by petty fears and desires, such that their political achievements can be reduced to the ruses of a self-interested lust for power. Rather, the promise of politics emerges in the fact that, on occasion, it can be (only) human and distinctly political to imagine – and realize – possibilities rooted in but irreducible to the contemporary constellation of power and its attendant ideology of individualism. A metaphor for democracy that dismissively relegates such a possibility to an outdated pre-“post-deferential” era remains anti-political and undemocratic in ways that have become oppressively, disturbingly, familiar during the reign of George W. Bush.

Works Cited

Coleman, Stephen (2003). “A Tale of Two Houses: The House of Commons, The Big Brother House.” The Hansard Society. Retrieved online July 24, 2005 at:

“Democracy Idol” (2005). The Economist, Sept. 8. Retrieved online at:

Gardyn, Rebecca (2002). “The Tribe has Spoken.” American Demographics, September, pp.34-40.

Jenkins, Henry (2006). “Democracy, Big Brother Style.” Confessions of an Aca/Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, July 4. Retrieved online at:

Jenkins, Henry, et al. (2003). “Reality TV.” Plenary Conversation 2 at the MiT3: Television in Transition conference, May 3. Retrieved online at:

McCarthy, Anna (2004). McCarthy made the remarks cited above during a workshop titled “Reality TV and its Implications for Television Studies,” at the annual convention of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Atlanta, GA, March 5.

Mitchell, Alison (2000). “The 2000 Campaign: The Texas Governor.” The New York Times, Sept. 7, Late Edition, p. A27.

Samat, Hafiday (2004). “Reality Takes a Deep Bite.” New Straits Times (Malaysia), July 18; 1.

Stanley, Alessandra (2006). “The TV Watch; ‘American Idol’ Dresses Up For Its Big Season Finale.” The New York Times, May 26, p. C1.

Image Credits:

1. Reality Surveillance Cartoon

2. Ryan Seacrest

3. Freedom is Compliance

Please feel free to comment.


  • Reality-TV for dupes

    Indeed, labelling Reality-TV democratic is an oxymoron. Most of these shows are steamed by voluntary slavery, people willingly subjecting themselves to the abuses of the hosts and the public. There is nothing empowering there. In this environment, I agree with Mark’s connection between Reality-TV and Georges Bush’s savvy-faux populism. Reality-TV is known to penalize greatness and competence. In a recent article in Esquire, Chuck Klosterman writes that “If Jack and Locke (from Lost) were characters on Survivor, neither would have any chance of winning. On Survivor, being a successful leader is a death sentence; with the exceptions of Ethan Zohn from season three and Tom Westman from season ten, the strongest players always lose. The game is actively designed to penalize greatness. The perfect Survivor contestant is the kind of paradoxical individual who should not exist: an understated, noncontroversial, virtually invisible personality who—for some unknown reason—really, really wants to be on TV. Most important, the perfect Survivor contestant needs to be “ungreat.” That is the key to winning $1 million”. I rest my case.

  • Undemocratic Youth

    “The popularity of this format with youth…has a lot to do with their grwoing up in a democratized society…”. As a member of that youth I admittedly find myself embarrassed by my generation’s abuse of “democracy”-even in its lowest forms (reality television). I recently witnessed two friends watching “Dancing with the Stars”. One friend was quick to whip out their phone and vote for the favored Joey Lawrence. The other friend stopped them and said “He doesn’t need your vote, vote for Mario Lopez…he’s hotter”. I found this truly reflective of my generation, and it can be paralleled to past presidential elections (where I didn’t hear much different). The vote is no longer given to the best answer to the question, “who is the best candidate?” but rather “who’s poster will look better on my wall?”

  • from one who can stand reality tv

    I believe reality TV is stereotypical, hopefully fading out, and pointless. Still when there is nothing better to do I sit for an hour and watch these pointless shows. I am pretty sure the American people aren’t that stupid and believe that their voting truly will count, I am positive it’s rigged. Being part of the American people I am okay with this fact and I know if its not rigged this is the lowest form of democracy but at least I don’t have to go through an electoral college to give my favorite “superstar” my vote and make it truly count. I think what people don’t realize especially the older generation is that this generation wants instant gratification. Did the reality show do its job by making me feel better about my life or did it entertain me and keep me hooked? More often than not even if it’s the worst reality like “Who Wants to Marry a Midget” if it makes the viewers sit there for an hour it did its job by keep the viewers entertained.

  • “truly”

    I love reality television. Just thought it would be worth putting that voice in here, given that all the other commentators seem to hate it. I also believe that superficial things such as appearance are a vital part of the public communication process.

  • Larry D. Swaffar

    A real REALITY TV.

    I think that to appreciate Reality TV, one has to consider the Focus of the Producers Agenda. Are they seeking to help the Participants achieve a Goal or are they simply seeking to Fatten thier Pocketbooks?Unfortunately,I believe it’s the Latter!,..using peoples dreams against the shattered (and more often,”Hatefull”)wishes of a viewing audiance who see’s no hope of a chance of thier own. Given that the Bulk of Reality TV is aimed at Discord rather than Success, it’s no wonder that it has been so Talked About,Popularized and yet Scorned. Perhapsif the Industry actuallystrived, (at least more often.)to provide Good,Honest, Programing that Taught the American Viewer that this Country is the Land-of-opportunity, Then maybe the Publics view would change to something morepositive? I for one prefer to feel Warmth and Happiness after a show such as HomeMakeOver or Involved,as in America’s Most Wanted. Not Delighted that someone told some B***H OFF!,..or made someone feel Terrible over something Stupid! When will People LEARN? It’s for this reason that i’ve worked up an idea of my own at Perhaps if some of us could get behind the idea, we could change REALITIES Outlook?

  • “love and hate”

    delighted to hear of your love for reality TV: you must be a very happy viewer these days! On a more serious note, I question the attempt to make this a conversation about love or hate. I am not attempting to denigrate anyone’s personal tastes, but to suggest the need to examine claims about the democratization of culture during a time characterized by the increasing concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few elites. Not cultural elitists (often the target of arguments that get built around taste), but elites with REAL power. Shifting the grounds of the debate to questions of taste is a rhetorical move made all too often by those who would redirect questions about political and economic power to questions of “attitude.” Here in the US, political elites have made it a practice to distract voeters from their accumulation of power by adopting the guise of populists who side with the public against those “liberal elitists” who make fun of Nascar culture. Those who would celebrate popullar culture as a “site of resistance” need, at the very least, to consider the ways in which such celebrations s play into the hands of real elites who mobilize reverse-scorn (directed towards those who ostensibly belittle the products of the culture industries) as ruse of power. thanks for reading!

  • In True Democracy, Majority Rule is the lowest of justification for action (it may get you 50 cents for a coke, but, nothing else); it’s a Criminal Marxist regime (a tyranny’s war rhetoric) that tries to tell you it’s the ideal of a Democracy—it’s how Marxism counterfeits Real,Representative Government and gives you Criminal occupation (a majority rule dictatorship) instead…maybe this new political reality show will get you the real thing in a President in 2008….and….

    Haven’t you heard, someone already won the Independent 2008 Presidential Competition? It’s Dr. Eric Durand, Ph.D…..the Who’s Who in America Discoverer of the New Higher Science of Love (where Algebra fails and two wrongs/negatives NEVER EQUAL a right/positive, only greater debt and descent into war) and the Scientific Government Training Programs that would’ve prevented Every Major Disaster Since Reagan Left Office (1988-89)—and he’s going to use the $1,000,000 to run the campaign and ELIMINATE THE U.S.’s $8 TRILLION-PLUS DEFICIT, all at the same time (and, hence, the sooner officially-recognized and awarded, the more lives saved)—GUARANTEED—Real Presidents Have To Be Quick……[–for pix or details]

  • Actually, in some ways it’s true….if we could get our “representative government” working, someone actually earning the paycheck that the verbal-contract/oath of office REQUIRES, I could prove, versus any and all evidence to the contrary that:

    1) I’m the only applicant/candidate who’s “of a mind and ability to rightly-perform the job” (the only qualifications for government office that’ll withstand any grand jury’s scrutiny, versus any and all evidence to the contrary)—all the rest is reprovably-fraudulent, used to steal your money and worse (as fraudulent Law Codes were used during WWI and WWII, including Dart’s Code, by the enemy)…and

    2) That No Other Applicant For the Presidency has ever “supported and defended the U.S. Constitution” as the oath/verbal-contract of office REQUIRES (making them all racketeers, thieves through fraud) and disqualified for government office, especially, the Presidency…(Both in the basics of getting your Grand Juries Working properly, making and issuing Civil Debts, True Bills, upon every official allegation of wrongdoing—-and, macrocosmically,via the fact that my Who’s Who in America Discoveries include new aspects of the office which were not known before, since Franklin, and have been copyrighted to prevent cunterfeiters’ illegal usage of them to obtain the office)…

    Especially, if they weren’t organizedly, illegally, keeping opposition-admitted-lawsuit funds from me (since 1988-89’s La.D.c.#89-00443, etc.) to illegally prevent my application/candidacy, so they could pretend they’ve won and steal more of your trilions…

    But, you can vote in the only manner that they’re going to allow, evidently, and get your real president at:

    And, if you think there’s nothing wrong with your newsmedia (especially, television, who’s on your airwaves-legally, exclusively to be able to inform you of such things)……no others words can explain it to you…..

    RCCFM: Always;

    Dr. Eric Durand, Ph.D….

    Click-on and Vote For The Only Reprovably-Qualified Applicant, Today (The ONLY Applicant who can prove he’s qualified, versus any and all evidence to the contrary, including this evidence).

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