No reality tv, no Trump.
Once upon a time, there was only one American reality television show: COPS. From COPS, the phenomenon grew into the cultural hydra we know and love/loathe today.
Maybe it was an inevitable byproduct of the Information Age; maybe it was the great Hollywood writer’s strike. Whatever the cause, “unscripted television,” once a nonexistent genre, soon became ubiquitous.
Reality-type entertainment shows instantly popped up everywhere. There were singing competitions, dancing competitions, fashion competitions, and cooking competitions.
We ignored the old adage, “Peek not through a knothole, lest ye be vexed,” and got a thorny backstage look at everything. A rapt nation reveled in the otherwise-boring lives of commercial truck drivers, fishing boat captains, and soldiers enduring the rigors of elite military training. Nothing was off-limits. We watched strangers bicker together in a house, bicker in the wild, eat bugs for money, and worse.
Reality television became more exploitative over time. Programs like The Jerry Springer Show started as outliers and then morphed into a new genre: Embarrassment television.
In one early season of MTV’s The Real World, the trendy young roommates picked to live in Hawaii were faced with a major real-world problem when one of their fellow cast members started exhibiting the unmistakable — and sometimes embarrassing — symptoms of serious alcohol addiction.
By universal acclaim, the other cast-mates and the show’s producers elected to send the sufferer home for treatment. Ruthlessly exploiting a 19-year-old’s drinking problem didn’t make for good television in 1999.
But by the era of Jersey Shore a decade later, exploiting the drunken antics of budding young addicts on camera was Hollywood’s bread and butter. The Shore was considered one of the most notable television shows of the era. Classes were taught about it in universities. Probably still are.
The Apprentice was nothing special in the way of reality television shows. It seemed a niche program for workaholics with a penchant for schadenfreude and watching other people get fired.
The show’s star, Donald Trump, was little more than a character actor then, a wealthy playboy who inherited his fortune, famous for being famous. For Hollywood, Trump was nothing more than a quintessential “Mean Boss” archetype, a cameo, a Wall Street caricature; basically, great casting.
Right around the time The Apprentice was taking off — and taking Donald J. Trump with it, transforming him from a Hollywood C-list celebrity into a household name — reality television producers had a brainwave.
What if the President of the United States could be chosen by voters…on a reality television program?
After all, call-in voting worked for American Idol — why not the President?
And American Candidate was born.
Contestants on the show, which was hosted by Montel Williams, competed in challenges similar to those any political candidate might face in a campaign; speeches, town halls, policy questions, and debates.
After one season, the show was canceled in 2004.
Or was it?
Were the show-runners who floated this idea like scientists trying to invent glue who accidentally concoct dynamite? Maybe the show wasn’t canceled because it was a failure but because producers feared it would be a terrifying success.
After all, electing a president via reality television show might have resulted in a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of a political candidate — someone all shadows and slick production with no substance; someone willing to play a role, with populist appeal, universal name recognition, and a really, really big — unscripted — microphone.
A reality television star — a persona created by Wall Street and Hollywood — did somehow manage to become the nominee of the Republican Party in 2015. It’s a feat Trump could never have managed without reality television.
And America entered a very strange era, wherein a wealthy New York City real estate mogul and Hollywood reality-television star — who was a faithful Democrat for six decades without being found objectionable — suddenly became the progressive media establishment’s ultimate bête noire.
The nightly news turned into one long professional wrestling match where Donald J. Trump was cast as the heel every single night, night after night.
You can’t turn the channel; it’s on every channel. Now that’s a hit reality television show.
Now that new Twitter owner Elon Musk has been kind enough to reinstate Trump’s account, the next two years will be even more about Donald Trump than the last two.
Thanks to reality television, and our celebrity-obsessed culture, politics has been turned into one huge, unscripted, made-for-C-SPAN dramady.
Are both parties being taken on a ride to nowhere?
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)