Reality TV Is Undemocratic
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).
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).
As we await the migration of fans from (the former) SurvivorSucks.com to IraqAttackIsWack.org, 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.
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: http://www.clubepublic.org.
“Democracy Idol” (2005). The Economist, Sept. 8. Retrieved online at: http://www.economist.com
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: http://www.henryjenkins.org
Jenkins, Henry, et al. (2003). “Reality TV.” Plenary Conversation 2 at the MiT3: Television in Transition conference, May 3. Retrieved online at: http://web.mit.edu/cms/mit3/subs/plenary2.html.
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.
Please feel free to comment.