Political Reality

Another in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, this passage explores ways that reality television might become a vehicle for political education. The section was inspired in part by this passage from Joe Trippi’s book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, The Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything:

“When Americans get the choice…they constantly surprise the producers and the celebrity judges. They go for gospel singers and torch singers and big band singers. They vote for fat people and geeky people and ugly people. They go for people like themselves….This is the most important thing that any business can learn from the first wave of this revolution and its impact on entertainment. We want the power to choose….In every industry, in every segment of our economy, the power is shifting over to us.”


In one telling passage from his campaign memoirs, Howard Dean’s campaign manager Joe Trippi imagines what would happen if the presidental campaign had presented itself through the lens of reality television: “

Send a camera out with the candidate every day to film the rallies and debates, everything going on behind the scenes and on stage. No secrets, no background dealings – open up the campaign and let the people see inside it, a running journal of a campaign, an all-access video blog. This is the opposite way that political campaigns generally function, of course. Most campaigns do everything in their power to control every element of the candidate’s image and message, from the clothes he wears to each word out of his mouth.

Trippi’s vision of “Dean TV” was something akin to Big Brother, where people, individually and collectively, would monitor the candidate’s every word and gesture, comparing notes on the internet, bringing transparency to the political process. In the end, the campaign budget supported a much more modest effort, where supporters and staffers were given digital camcorders and produced a limited amount of behind the scenes footage for web distribution.

Documentary filmmaker R. J. Cutler (The War Room) also saw reality television as the ideal vehicle for turning viewers into voters. In August 2004, Showtime debuted a Cutler-produced series, The American Candidate, modeled loosely after the similarly named American Idol. Cutler explained, “Reality television has borrowed so much from the world of politics, whether it’s alliances or voting or the kind of strategizing that’s done.”

So why not turn the lens around and use reality television to teach politics? Average (or not so average) citizens would emerge through a elimination process, acquire skills in political organizing, take their views to the American public, and gain public visibility for their issues. Host Montel Williams summarized the core concept: “What if you didn’t have to spend millions of dollars to get elected? What if you didn’t have to go to the right schools? What if your gender or the person you love or the color of your skin didn’t matter at all?”

On the one hand, the series producers hoped to educate the public about how the political process actually worked. On the other hand, they wanted to encourage fantasies of reform which might broaden the range of candidates and expand the level of public participation. Noel Holston, a critic for Chicago Tribune, clearly read the series in those terms: “The most fascinating thing about these folks is that, like most of us, they can’t be neatly categorized… The candidates’ discussions among themselves repeatedly remind us how pigeonholed and polarized the debate we see on TV typically is.”

As with other reality programs, the public was encouraged to turn these real people into the objects of their gossip and to evaluate their performances and ethics. In this case, they were being taught a new perspective on the political process. The candidates were coached and the public were educated by political consultants drawn from both parties, including Carter Eskew, Joe Trippi, Frank Luntz, Ed Rollins, Rich Bond, Bay Buchanan. As Cutler explained,

“We’re going to draw the curtain back and show how the process really works. We’re going to show just how challenging it is to run for president. We’re going to show the difficult decisions that have to be made between your convictions and what is politically expedient. We’re going to show how polling works. We’re going to show how opposition research works.”

Much as American Idol helped educate Americans about the criteria music producers used to assess new talent, American Candidate proposed to teach the public new criteria for assessing political candidates.

Cutler’s original plan had been to film the series in real time and have the public vote on who remained on the ballot, similar to the way American Idol works. When the series shifted to Showtime from the USA Network, its public visibility was diminished and the decision was made to complete the series production before the first episode was aired. In the end, the program failed to make a dent in the ratings and drew very little media coverage.