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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Column: The Amazing Race

Media critic Marshall McLuhan is famous for reminding us “the medium is the message.” While any form of media carries content (DVDs carry video, MP3 players hold music, the internet has web pages, etc.), the form of the medium itself is also a kind of content. I think the trick is to determine what message the medium sends.

An article in the Wall Street Journal early last week drew attention to the growing audience watching Republican presidential candidate debates. Between television viewers and online streaming, more than 12 million people tuned in to the most recent debate. Where stump speeches and policy white papers have failed to gain like coverage, each debate invites pre-event speculation, live-coverage and post-event appraisal.

I’m one of those 12 million, as I’ve been following the Republican presidential primary debates since they began in June. At first I was frustrated by the medium; not a single one has looked anything like a debate to me.

At this point I should mention that I’ve competed in and coached high school speech and debate for more than seven years. This should tell you two things. First, if you thought I was cool for writing about Eminem last week, now you know better. Second, my experience means I can apply Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s test for identifying obscenity to identifying debates – I know one when I see one. Between the format’s vague questions, mind-numbingly short responses and neutered response times, I haven’t seen a single debate.

It wasn’t until I went to the ARC last Tuesday following the Republican primary debate that I realized my understanding of the relevant medium was off base.

No matter what time I go to the ARC, the mounted television directly in front of my chosen workout machine is always playing VH1’s “Tough Love”. To the uninitiated, “Tough Love” is a reality TV show that features nine women in need of serious relationship advice. Because you can’t change channels on these TVs at the ARC, everyday I am force fed episodes of Steven Ward telling bombshells how not to be crazy.

When I watched the show after the debate, it struck me that the two are not at all that different. Both talk of winners and losers, meeting expectations, rival encounters and chances for redemption. Then it hit me. When you frame the medium of the primary race as a reality TV show, it makes more sense. Let me explain. All reality programming shares three characteristics: challenges, interviews and common space.

Challenges on “Tough Love” range from competitions titled “Communication” to “Parental Skills” to “The WOW Factor” to “Revenge of the Exes.” You can’t make this stuff up. Each week the show identifies the winner and the weakest participant of these challenges.

On the primary trail, the media covers challenges such as fundraising ability, endorsements and what you might call “Revenge of the Candidate’s Past,” in the case of Gov. Mitt Romney’s health care program in Massachusetts and the former life of Rick-Perry-the-Democrat. And in a weird crossover between the primary race and “The Simple Life”, one of the recent challenges covered by the media showed how various candidates spent a day working blue-collar jobs to better understand us regular folk. You really can’t make this stuff up.

Both conventional reality programming and the primary race also share the interview process. On reality shows, the interviews serve to artificially inject drama into the show by instigating conflicts between the contestants. This works for primary race interviews, too. In a field of candidates all on the same side, many use the unending stream of interviews to pick fights with other candidates to distinguish themselves from the field. We saw this most recently with Rick Santorum, who is struggling to remain relevant by taking jabs at Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman and Michelle Bachmann.

The final reality show convention of the common space explains the televised debate format. Every reality show has a common space where contestants have to face each other. On “Survivor”, this is the Tribal Council. On “Tough Love”, this is the house. The common space doesn’t always serve a function on the show so much as it exists for the viewer’s entertainment. What will they do, how will they act (or react), when they’re forced to share the same space?

Considered this way, the televised debates seem not to be about the issues. The format is a pretext for getting all the candidates together so we can see, for our delight, how they react to each other.

Here we have a situation where the medium is transforming the content. The Republican presidential primary debates are not drawing some of the largest audiences on TV despite their confused format, the debates draw a dozen million viewers precisely because they deliver what we expect from entertaining television today. The primary race is the best reality show TV can offer.

RAJIV NARAYAN responds to all his fan mail at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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