Scandalous sex tapes. Ridiculous renditions of the whip/nae-nae. A planned fart-in that would have defied the logistics of human gastroenterology. Sounds like the makings of another horrendous reality TV show, right? Unfortunately, these were some of the “finer” moments of Election 2016 – which could have just as easily been called The Real (and Fake) Politicians of Washington, D.C. Oscar Wilde hit the nail on the head when he said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Life has indeed taken a sharp right turn, mimicking the shenanigans often seen on these brass, voyeuristic TV shows and driving the integrity of American politics into a wall.
Reality TV started innocently enough in 1948 when Candid Camera launched on ABC, but in the last twenty years it has evolved into a spectacle of the weird and outrageous. From survivors outlasting and outwitting one another to relationship drama unfolding on the small screen and narcissistic bosses announcing “You’re fired,” the more shocking the characters and storyline, the more Americans tend to fist pump in approval. This type of media consumption is not without a ripple effect.
Although reality television is not grabbing as many viewers as it once did, there is evidence that it has altered the very fabric of our society including our political landscape. According to June Deery, associate professor in the Department of Communication and Media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, reality TV has changed television and changed reality, even for those who are not among the millions who watch. And, as suspected, it has had a direct impact on politics. “Media content is politically significant if we assume there is a progression from awareness, to knowledge, to understanding, to tolerance or liking, to political expression or engagement,” she writes in her study Reality TV: Key Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies.
Unscripted TV has become the norm. Yet, its moral influence and why we, as a society, consume so much of this programming is speculative. What can be said definitively is that these programs cause social debates and scandals in a wider cultural setting, including politics. According to Deery’s study, reality TV generates a strong social response, “Yet, though direct influence may be impossible to establish, it may be easier to argue that, over time, the sheer prevalence of reality TV content on our screens may function to normalize certain values and behavior, some of which were previously disreputable or taboo.”
In an interview, Mark Young, who studies the entertainment industry at the University of Southern California and co-authored The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America, substantiates Deery’s findings, outwardly stating, “Reality TV has normalized outrageous and inappropriate behavior.” Young even gives a small glimpse into Donald Trump’s success on the campaign trail, attributing it to his role on The Apprentice, “He didn’t have skills in the political arena so … he was able to keep himself ‘fresh’ by being outrageous.”
Even though he was abrupt, often offensive, and over-the-top, The Apprentice portrayed Trump as a businessman who got things done, made quick decisions in lieu of any emotional attachment, and spoke his mind; a leader that millions of Americans came to idolize and associate with success and “business as usual.” The reality, according to former Apprentice producer Bill Pruitt, is that Trump’s real estate empire was collapsing when he was cast for the show. Regardless, the producers depicted Trump as a successful businessman, a ratings “scam” that Pruitt says permanently altered public perception of the “buffoon.” Truitt remains shocked at how quickly and decisively viewers bought into the sham, no questions asked.
In the early days of the campaign trail, Trump captured a significant majority of Apprentice viewers. Ashamed that the false reality they created has now unleashed a force destined to further corrupt U.S. politics, Pruitt cautioned his fellow producers, “Now that the lines of fiction and reality have blurred to the horrifying extent that they have, those involved in the media must have their day of reckoning. People are buying our crap. Make it entertaining, yes. But make it real. Give them the truth or pay the consequences.”
Reality TV prepared audiences for Trump, Deery said in a follow-up interview, because it destabilizes notions of fact, truth, and evidence. Trump repeatedly contradicted himself on the campaign trail and dismissed fact checkers even when clear evidence was produced. Again, with no questions asked, his supporters bought the charade.
For people who gravitate toward reality TV, election 2016 was ripe with heightened theatrics. As Reddit user Raymond Windsor noted, “When was the last time a debate or campaign was remotely entertaining?” Voat community member “pyres” shares Windsor’s thoughts in a thread called Out of the Loop. “Trump appeals to a lot of people because he isn’t afraid to speak his mind … and if worse comes to worse and Trump is elected, think of the entertainment value.” Some commenters even said they would enjoy an Apprentice-style selection of Vice President.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was frequently scrutinized for being “too professional,” “too old-school,” and “too by-the-book.” Even with her impressive resume, Americans hit the snooze button. Pantsuits and qualifications paled in comparison to tomfoolery and incompetence.
Author and executive coach Ray Williams points out in an article on Psychology Today, “There is a growing and disturbing trend of anti-intellectual elitism in American culture. It’s the dismissal of science, the arts, and humanities and their replacement by entertainment, self-righteousness, ignorance, and deliberate gullibility.” This seems to be the very definition of reality TV and the effect it’s had on society. If the shock factor is high and we’re endlessly amused, we’ll accept fiction for fact and lies for truth.
And now, whether by ballot cast or enter the Electoral College, we’re about to tune in for the most flamboyant reality TV show ever: The Trump Presidency. While the ratings might be huuuge, as they say, the outcome could be disastrous. But on this island, don’t expect immunity.