I could hardly believe my ears. As I sat in a television green room is Secaucus, New Jersey, I overheard a couple of TV producers plotting to be the first show to broadcast two people having sex on live TV. This was the early 90's and radio and television were in transition. As a mass media buff, I had been closely following the changes taking place in the media, driven by people like Morton Downy Jr., Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, and Rush Limbaugh. I had followed closely the emergence of a gaggle of “personalities” that would eventually be called “shock jocks.” I was also tracking a new genre of programming called “Trash TV.”
The formula of this new media was simple. Use crude humor, drama, conflict, exaggeration, insults, aggression, and anything offensive or shocking to build a loyal audience.
By the mid 90’s shock jocks had started an all-out arms race, competing for who could drop the crudest, bizarre, startling, offensive, and sensational bombs on their listening audiences. By the late 1990s, it was no longer “shocking” to hear incendiary comments, “locker room” talk, or vitriolic exchanges between people on the radio.
It turned out that pushing the envelope of decency and incivility was very appealing and profitable. The audiences grew, and the wallets of the talk-show hosts and media outlets swelled. Soon entertaining and titillating audiences became as important as providing factual information. In fact, eventually, the facts would no longer matter.
Keeping It Real
The trend continued, jumped to TV and gave rise to an explosion of reality TV shows that would build on some of the core ideas. The formula was equally simple - real people, saying and doing things that pushed the envelope.
Soon there seemed to be no limit to how far reality TV producers would go. We were treated to quality family-friendly programming like:
Cheaters, catching suspected relationship cheaters in the act.
Dating Naked, where each episode a guy and a girl on a remote tropical island go on nude dates with three different people, ultimately deciding if they've made a connection with anyone.
To Catch a Predator, a series devoted to luring sexual predators into contact with actors impersonating underage people (generally ages 13–15) and catching it all on camera.
All My Babies’ Mamas, with rapper Shawty Lo dealing with the daily ups and downs of being the father of 11 children by ten different women.
As the genre mutated, one feature that became a staple of reality TV culture was pitting people against each other for entertainment and ratings. The Apprentice was one of the most successful examples of this format. Drama, betrayal, backbiting, throwing team members under the bus and winning at all costs were encouraged and rewarded.
We routinely saw teammates, friends, and people who had come far together by collaborating, encouraged to eviscerate each other in the boardroom to win the “game.” For me, the show became a lab for studying human nature. I would watch closely to see who would succumb to the show’s culture and who would say, I don’t want to win this job or this game that much. Often those who maintained their core values were called “losers”, “chokers”, and ultimately heard, “you’re fired!”
This year the spectacle of reality TV culture enveloped the presidential campaign. The DNA of Morton Downy Jr., Howard Stern, and Jerry Springer can all be found at the scene. Pushing the envelope of decency and pitting people against each other for entertainment and ratings once again proved to have surprising mass appeal. At first, the spectacle of this new political reality was fascinating, but soon it became maddening.
As we go to the polls, most Americans of all persuasions are now disillusioned, repulsed, angry and are looking forward to the end.
Like most Americans, I’m glad this campaign is over. Lately, I’ve felt like the frequent travelers who wake up in hotel rooms, disoriented and wondering what city they are in. For the last year, I’ve awakened equally disoriented, wondering what nation I’m in.
I’m suffering from MCD - Massive Cognitive Dissonance. It’s a deep anxiety and fear that everything I’ve been taught to believe about America and Americans may not be true. It’s a feeling of betrayal, that everything I’ve been told “matters” really doesn’t matter at all. I’m disturbed by the questions I find myself asking about our country:
-- Is there such a thing as common American values?
-- Do self-evident truths exist?
-- Is respecting the democratic process now optional?
-- Is there anything we all still agree on?
-- Are the majority of women okay with being sexual objects?
-- Are some people so fearful of becoming minorities that they are willing to do anything to prevent it?
-- Is there anything in our culture that is totally off limits?
-- Is there anything that matters more than winning?
-- Can all misdeeds now be forgiven with a sound-bite apology and a pivot?
-- Are there any limits to our capacity for self-deception?
-- Will America still be one nation, under God, indivisible…?
-- Is celebrity the new religion of America?
-- Are we entering a post-American, America?
I watched the closing campaign speech of both candidates and noticed something I had never seen before.
Throughout my lifetime, the closing words of every speech by American presidents and candidates have been pretty predictable. Blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada, and “God bless the United States of America.”
Last night the candidates set another new precedent. Both closed out what may be the most celebrity-driven, made-for-reality-TV campaign in American history without even faking a nod to a power greater than ourselves. Apparently, the future of America is now all up to you and me.
The first challenge for the next president is going to be putting America back together again. We’ve now spent over 20 years using radio and television to polarize, divide, and pit our citizens against each other. Reversing the “reality” we’ve created is going to take more than a few celebrities and superstars to fix. We’re going to need help from a little higher. Hopefully, the next president will spend a little less time looking from side to side and a little more time looking up.