As the election media wars heat up, both Democrats and Republicans are looking for an edge, whether it means finding an ad that will appeal to swing voters like the “NASCAR dads” or figuring out how to get more of their candidates on the Sunday morning talk shows. But what gets little attention these days are the political implications behind the television programming that under the guise of being reality based has made a culture of humiliation the key to prime time audience ratings.
Making entertainment out of people’s weaknesses has historically been part of television. Candid Camera, The Gong Show, and The Dating Game all capitalized on getting those who appeared on them, whether as surprise participants or contestants, to reveal themselves in spontaneous, often unflattering ways. But there was a lighthearted, practical-joke quality to these shows. The fluff was there from the start, and in the case of The Gong Show and The Dating Game the rewards for winning were paltry. Today’s humiliation TV is a different story. The financial stakes are high, and participants are subjected to prolonged exposure before the camera. Their failings-whether of looks or character-are discussed in front of them, and if they can be made to cry, so much the better.
The shows that constitute humiliation TV have been classified by programmers and critics alike as reality-based television. But there is nothing real about them, if by real we mean programs designed to show ordinary people in the process of going about day-to-day life. Humiliation TV shows are contrived from start to finish, and what they feature are not winners so much as losers to whom the viewing audience can feel superior. Their closest television roots lie in the shows of Jerry Springer and Howard Stern, where meanness is the norm, and nobody comes away with his dignity intact.
No show better illustrates the elements of humiliation television than the highly popular series The Apprentice. The show won huge ratings by pitting sixteen aspiring businessmen and women in a battle to win a $250,000 job with real estate mogul Donald Trump, whose weekly task was to tell a contestant, “You’re fired.” The “apprentices” were divided into teams and given a project (renting an apartment, making a profit from bicycle cabs) in which they knew in advance that one member from the losing side would be cut. The projects themselves were trivial, closer to a test contrived by a college fraternity than a business school, and that was the point. A serious approach to the business world would have been a distraction for the show as well as for Trump, whose hotel and casino holdings are currently mired in debt. The Apprentice centered not on the success or failure of any project but on the losing team’s having to face Trump across a huge conference table. Would the apprentices turn on each other? Would the hard-working contestant be defeated by the manipulative contestant? This was the drama the audience could not wait to see, and the most successful programs were the ones in which Trump fired someone the viewers had learned to hate, and the loser got into a waiting cab and drove off alone into the New York night.
In New York there are now Trump billboards that feature The Donald looking very stern and saying, “You’re fired,” and when we look at our television guides, we can see the formula that The Apprentice has perfected is everywhere.
On American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, a variation of the talent show that from Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour to Star Search has always drawn an audience, the key is not picking the winning contestant but humiliating the losing one. Although some winners on American Idol, notably the singer Kelly Clarkson, have gone on to popular success, the reason viewers watch the program is not to discover the next Kelly Clarkson. They watch to see what Simon Cowell, a member of the celebrity panel that judges the contestants, has to say. A British-born record executive, Cowell specializes in badgering hapless singers, and it is his put-downs that fans wait for each week. “Don’t sing again. I think it’s lucky we didn’t charge the audience to come in tonight because they’d ask for a refund,” he told one loser after a particularly bad performance. As long as Cowell is on his game, the producers don’t even have to worry about the talent level of those who appear on their program. All they have to do is book a steady supply of lousy performers whom Cowell can savage.
On Survivor a similar transformation has happened to the traditional nature show. Contestants are placed in an exotic wilderness setting, usually a South Pacific island, with which they and their audience are unfamiliar. But their next step is not to go exploring, as if they were on the Discovery Channel. Instead, the contestants are divided into teams and pitted against each other in challenges, typically canoe races or building a shelter, decided upon in advance by the show’s producers. The losing team must send one of its members off the island, and the climax of the show comes when a vote is taken and viewers get to see who has failed to make the right friendships (contestants are encouraged to form alliances with each other) or told the best lies (one contestant tried to win sympathy by claiming that his grandmother had just died). There is no waiting cab for the losers. They are ushered out of the campsite and into the night, but as in The Apprentice, the money shot is built around exclusion.
On Average Joe, humiliation TV has even changed the old Dating Game formula in which three bachelors hidden behind a screen competed to see which one could persuade a bachelorette who was asking them questions to go out on a date. On Average Joe the stakes have been made much higher. The assumption is that the bachelorette is choosing a potential partner for life, not just a date, and the idea of her making a decision this important sight unseen has been done away with.
In the first Average Joe the catch was that the bachelorette, Melana Scantlin, a former National Football League cheerleader and Miss Missouri beauty queen, had to choose from a genuinely unattractive lot. The drama of the first shows in the series came from Melana’s being a good sport and choosing the Average Joes she was interested in on the basis of personality. The drama of the concluding shows came from the three handsome men who were suddenly added to the mix-a step that humiliated the remaining Average Joes and gave Melana the option of choosing her Joe on the basis of physical appeal, which in the end she did, selecting Jason, a good-looking student/waiter, over Adam, an original Joe.
Whether there are any boundaries these shows will not cross in the future is hard to know. Many of them are openly contemptuous of the feelings of people they have recruited. On Joe Millionaire, twenty female contestants were told that Evan Marriott, the man whose affections they would be competing for, was worth $50 million, when the truth was that the handsome Evan was a $19,000-a-year construction worker. The premise of the show was that women are gold diggers who will always make themselves available to rich men.
On Fear Factor, contestants have been asked not simply to meet difficult challenges but to participate in gross-out contests in which the winner is whoever can eat the most spiders or last the longest in a vat filled with snakes and night crawlers. On Extreme Makeover, a program in which participants undergo plastic surgery, those who make it onto the show appear only briefly after their surgery. The show counts on its participants’ self-loathing to give it appeal. Most of their time before the camera is spent telling the audience and their plastic surgeons what they hate about themselves and exactly what it is about their teeth, breasts, nose, skin they want changed.
In a thoughtful essay on The Apprentice and the Martha Stewart trial, New York Times columnist Frank Rich opined that the kudos Donald Trump was winning for his role in the show were a sign that the public was at last fed up with corrupt CEOs and liked Trump’s blunt way of doing business. Rich’s populist conclusion is comforting, but does not fit the facts. Much closer to the truth are the observations of Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the associate dean of the Yale School of Management, who in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece noted that the selection process on The Apprentice “resembles a game of musical chairs at a Hooter’s restaurant where sexual baiting and pleading is confused with effective salesmanship.”
Indeed, the overriding lesson that humiliation TV offers is that people will do anything for money, and that we are living in an America in which the only way to get ahead is to behave as ruthlessly as possible. Forget cooperation. Forget fairness. Think zero-sum society. That is the vision that television’s new culture of humiliation holds out. Our high schools and colleges may be bastions of “political correctness,” teaching students to refrain from judging each other on the basis of differences in appearance or beliefs, but in humiliation TV, judging dismissively is the name of the game. Excluding someone from sharing the top prize is the ultimate triumph.
In humiliation TV it is not, moreover, just the contestants who seem to be missing an ethical core. There is also no visible ethical core among producers and directors. They never ask themselves if they are taking advantage of people’s needs and vulnerabilities or if they have any obligations to those who agree to be on their programs. It clearly does not bother them to deceive a contestant, and it does not seem to occur to them that in filming contestants in intimate moments, such as a doctor’s exam or a romantic encounter, they trivialize surveillance and eavesdropping, making them seem an accepted part of contemporary society.
Given the ratings achieved by humiliation TV, there is no reason to expect the programs will go away any time soon. In a society in which shame in serious matters, such as presidential lying or the widening gap between haves and have-nots, has all but disappeared, we seem to have substituted a television culture of humiliation to assure ourselves that the power of embarrassment is not dead.
Last November, CBS’s Survivor Pearl Islands drew 19.9 million viewers, making it the fourth most popular show on television. Fox’s American Idol has an average audience of twenty-six million voters for its regular Tuesday and Wednesday shows, with fifteen million of those viewers coming from the eighteen to forty-nine age group most prized by advertisers. American Idol‘s profits for last season were estimated to be one hundred million dollars. Whatever the profit margin is, American Idol has been a bargain, especially when compared to a scripted show, which requires stars, writers, and sets just to get off the ground.
Rather than looking for ways to tone down humiliation TV, the networks are looking for copycat shows to take it to the next level. The newest shows include Playing it Straight, in which in order to win, a bachelorette has to distinguish the gay men from the straight men courting her; America’s Next Top Model, in which a group of beautiful women compete against each other for a lucrative modeling contract (staged lesbian scenes and acrobatics were part of the most recent series); and The Swan, in which eighteen women undergo plastic surgery in the hope of winning a beauty contest.
None of this is good news for the Democrats or the left. At a time when the election debate over the economy should be about the race to the bottom that is occurring as a result of the outsourcing of middle-class jobs and the growing number of families without health insurance, the worst possible television culture is one that tells us empathy has no place in our lives. It is a development that even the new liberal talk radio will be hard pressed to take on, for what humiliation TV represents is the rise of a pop culture in which schadenfreude has been so artfully disguised that it gives the illusion of being without political content.
Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book is Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial.