Reality TV and Politics Are Now One In The Same

Posted January 14, 2019
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When I started writing blogs for TheVJ, I had two basic rules: 

1. I would only write original material

2. I would stay away from politics.

Today, I am going to break both of those rules.

Every. once in a while you read a book that changes your life.

For me, it was Neil Postman's seminar work: Amusing Ourselves to Death. 

I first read it in 1986, when I was just starting my career in TV, as a producer at CBS News. 

It was a book that completley changed my view of the world of media and the course of my career and my life.

In the book, Postman postulated that the dominance of television (then, and we would say video now) was so pervasive and so overwhelming that it would ultimately come to infect and warp every institution of American life. 

Postman noted that in order to succeed on television, the subject matter had to be 'entertaining'.  If it wasn't entertaining, no one would watch it.  As a result, he said, one day, even people who run for political office, even the Presidency, would have to be entertaining.

How incredibly prescient.

The reason I am bringing this up here and now is that this week, The New Yorker

published an astonishing article about how Mark Burnett, the inventor of Survivor, the TV series (along with a lot of other very successful and most entertaining TV series) was also the inventor for The Apprentice - the Donald Trump vehicle.

The article is entitled: 

How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success

And the tag line reads:

With “The Apprentice,” the TV producer mythologized Trump—then a floundering D-lister—as the ultimate titan, paving his way to the Presidency.

As we were both teaching at NYU, I become friendly with Neil Postman. We used to lunch together from time to time.

I would argue with him that television was not the virus he believed it to be. That it was true that video was increasingly becoming the dominant medium of public discourse, but that that it did not have to be mindless.  I felt that if intelligent people picked up video cameras and started to produce on their own, that the content could be as intellignet and sophisticated as print.  

Perhaps we can still get there.

In the meantime, I only regret that Neil Postman did not live long enough to either see the Trump Presidency or to read about how it was indeed all he had once predicted.

He can't read the aritcle, but you can, and urge you to do that:

“Expedition: Robinson,” a Swedish reality-television program, premièred in the summer of 1997, with a tantalizing premise: sixteen strangers are deposited on a small island off the coast of Malaysia and forced to fend for themselves. To survive, they must coöperate, but they are also competing: each week, a member of the ensemble is voted off the island, and the final contestant wins a grand prize. The show’s title alluded to both “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Swiss Family Robinson,” but a more apt literary reference might have been “Lord of the Flies.” The first contestant who was kicked off was a young man named Sinisa Savija. Upon returning to Sweden, he was morose, complaining to his wife that the show’s editors would “cut away the good things I did and make me look like a fool.” Nine weeks before the show aired, he stepped in front of a speeding train.

The producers dealt with this tragedy by suggesting that Savija’s turmoil was unrelated to the series—and by editing him virtually out of the show. Even so, there was a backlash, with one critic asserting that a program based on such merciless competition was “fascist television.” But everyone watched the show anyway, and Savija was soon forgotten. “We had never seen anything like it,” Svante Stockselius, the chief of the network that produced the program, told the Los Angeles Times, in 2000. “Expedition: Robinson” offered a potent cocktail of repulsion and attraction. You felt embarrassed watching it, Stockselius said, but “you couldn’t stop.”

In 1998, a thirty-eight-year-old former British paratrooper named Mark Burnett was living in Los Angeles, producing television. “Lord of the Flies” was one of his favorite books, and after he heard about “Expedition: Robinson” he secured the rights to make an American version. Burnett had previously worked in sales and had a knack for branding. He renamed the show “Survivor.”

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