How Reality TV Took Over U.S. Politics

6 minute read

Lights! Camera! Booming television announcer: 17 candidates. Eight former or current governors. Five current or former senators. Two former or current CEOs, and a neurosurgeon. They’re all competing for one job and you, the voter, get to pick. Tune in tonight to see who got voted off the island.

Do the 2016 presidential elections feel like a reality television show to anyone else? Perhaps it’s because the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is a former reality star of his own hit show, The Apprentice, whose second ex-wife Marla Maples just landed a coveted spot on Dancing With the Stars.

Or perhaps it’s because the contest seems to have moved from television advertisements into the news shows themselves. Trump has spent just $10 million on televisions ads, but he has benefitted from an estimated $1.9 billion in free media coverage, according to mediaQuant, a firm that tracks media spending. By comparison, the same study showed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who has spent $27.9 million in paid ads, benefitted from $764 million in free media attention.

Trump has spelled ratings gold for Fox News Channel and CNN, and to a lesser degree MSNBC. As the primaries heated up in 2015, Fox saw its crucial ages 25-43 demographic rise 13 percent and that number spiked in January by 43 percent to more than two million viewers. In 2015, by contrast, CNN gained 30 percent and MSNBC was down 18 percent in the same demographic, though in January MSNBC saw a rise of 20 percent in that demographic. Overall, CNN’s primetime ratings are up 170 percent in the past year and Fox’s 40 percent.

“I go on one of these shows and the ratings double, they triple,” Trump told TIME for our cover of him earlier this month. “And that gives you power.”

As Jim Rutenberg wrote in his inaugural New York Times media column this week: “There is always a mutually beneficial relationship between candidates and news organizations during presidential year. But in my lifetime it’s never seemed so singularly focused on a single candidacy. And the financial stakes have never been so intertwined with the journalistic and political stakes.”

The roots of this chapter in American political and media history were planted many decades ago. In 1980, Ted Turner founded CNN, the first 24-hour cable news broadcast. It wasn’t subject to the same public trust laws network news had to abide by because it was cable and the airwaves weren’t owned by the government.

Seven years later, as The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta wrote in a book called “Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way,” the then-three big networks successfully lobbied to undo the government’s public trust restrictions on news in 1987. Auletta warned that the “new video democracy” would have viewers voting with their clickers for style over substance, entertainment over news.

Sure enough, ratings began to drive the news even more than before. Newscasters got more attractive. The stories got dumber: more pets, less City Hall. International coverage diminished on all but a few shows. A decade later and more than a third of Americans got their news from late night comedy shows. And still, that was not enough.

As my colleague Daniel D’Addario wrote, reality TV sprung from the “the friction between new openness in the culture at large and relative conservatism on network TV.” In 2000, CBS premiered the first reality television competition, Survivor. That success proliferated reality TV shows in just about every walk of life from fashion (Project Runway) to interior design (Top Design, a show Rutenberg’s wife once competed in), to cooking (Iron Chef, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, etc), to real estate (Million Dollar Listing), exercise (The Biggest Loser), singing (American Idol, The Voice), dancing (Dancing with the Stars), medicine (Sex Sent Me to the ER), business (The Apprentice), the list goes on and on.

Politics was ripe for a reality show if its own. But as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin learned the hard way, viewers didn’t want to see politicians’ lives behind the scenes (although that hasn’t stopped her from trying again and, just this week, again). In this era of digital disruption, viewers, like voters, were impatient for change in Washington. Having voted in three congressional classes of Tea Party candidates who achieved little real change besides the dethroning of their own Speaker, the atmosphere was ripe for a populist candidate promising something different, something drastic. Enter Donald Trump.

Trump was already an established reality television star. The Apprentice ran seven seasons followed by Celebrity Apprentice, which is now in its eighth season. Arnold Schwarzenegger is subbing in for Trump and, as usual, three of Trump’s children—Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric—will help judge. At first, pundits just assumed Trump was running for president as a ratings ploy, but to Washington’s surprise (and Trump’s, if Maureen Dowd is to be believed) Trump has swept 18 states and holds a 256 pledged delegate lead over his nearest competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Perhaps people have become more accustomed to voting, even if it’s dialing in from home for American Idol, but ratings have translated into voting power for Trump, who has helped drive record turn out in the Republican presidential primaries—in some states by as much as 250 percent over 2008 figures.

Politics has increasingly become about fame. Remember when John McCain accused Barack Obama of being the Paris Hilton of politics? So perhaps it isn’t that crazy that a bona fide television star with near universal name might earn popularity criticizing, to borrow his own words, the “stupid” “crazy” “idiots” who govern America. Nor is the show anywhere near over.

Many have predicted that if Trump doesn’t win the nomination in this bid that we’re only in Season One of this show. The problem is, government and governing isn’t something that can change rapidly. As Obama puts it, “it’s like turning an aircraft carrier, it can’t be done on a dime.” Even if Trump were to win the White House there’s little chance, given the country’s checks and balances and sprawling bureaucracy, that any one president can make the kind of sweeping for which viewers clearly hunger. Which means this is a show that has no real winner.

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