A View from Henry Jenkins

Putting Some “Reality“ in American Politics

Showtime has announced plans, recently vetted by the Federal Elections Commission, to launch a new reality series this summer – The American Candidate – during which average Americans will present themselves as possible candidates for the president of the United…

  • January 13, 2004

Showtime has announced plans, recently vetted by the Federal Elections Commission, to launch a new reality series this summer – The American Candidate – during which average Americans will present themselves as possible candidates for the president of the United States, will undergo training, handling, and spin-mastering, and asked to do speeches, debates, whistle stops, etc. The public will winnow out the pool based on a model similar to American Idol.Some critics have denounced the show as trivializing the political process. They also worry that the candidate that emerges could be a locus for protest votes in the fall election and create havoc for both parties. I am more optimistic. For one thing, it is being produced by R.J. Kutler, an award-winning documentary filmmakers whose film – The War Room – is one of the best documentaries ever made about presidential politics and helped to make George Stephanopoulos and James Carville into national news figures. Kutler’s credentials suggest that there is some earnestness behind their claimed desire to use the show to educate the public about the behind the scenes aspects of the political process. Research on reality television suggests that people are more apt to watch such series in social contexts, that they are more apt to discuss what they watch after the fact, that they are already primed to think in terms of ethics and tactics, that they are more apt to seek out other information via the internet, etc. If we can get people to care as much about national policy debates as they care about whether Clay got cheated or whether Johnny Fairplay should have been voted off before Rupert was, then it will help to enhance democratic participation. (I question whether any show on Showtime, though, will reach enough households to have the same kind of cultural impact that American Idol or Survivor have had, not matter how compelling.)That said, there is also a good deal of political science research which suggests that showing so much behind the scenes stuff about the packaging of candidates have made people more cynical over all and less likely to vote. So, take your pick.

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