The Great American Elimination Reality Show

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Americans love their game shows, especially the reality shows where someone gets eliminated each week. Is it any surprise, then, that the President of the United States is a seasoned reality show producer?

In the last half-century of the television era, American politics devolved from political theater into reality game show. In 2016 and again in 2020, the traditional candidates played traditional political theater. They each tried to emerge as the star from an ensemble cast. They tried to steal the spotlight, grab every opportunity in front of the camera, deliver the most lines.

That star power worked for John F. Kennedy, who had a cast of supporting players. He played to the crowd, and the crowd loved him. Those Cold War days of heroes and villains, spies and skulduggery made for great soap opera. But in recent years, the narrative has changed.

The producer

Trump, the outsider, was the first to realize that presidential politics wasn’t so much about rising from the pack as it was about surviving the elimination rounds.

You know the format in “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” The losing team managers and one or two people of their choosing go to The Boardroom, “where one of you will be fired.” The secret is not to be fired. You just have to do better than one or two rivals each week, and build your brand as you go.

Trump hosted 14 seasons of the “Apprentice” franchise shows over more than a decade, and mastered the strategy. About 20 contestants were divided into two approximately equal teams. Each week, he assigned both teams the same task with the same objectives.

Goals and strategies changed from week to week. That meant the secret to success changed, too. To win, the team had to do the best job meeting that week’s goal.

Meanwhile, cameras took the audience behind the scenes to gaffes and blunders (frequent), brilliant ideas and successes (few), and intrigue and backstabbing (every week). With every episode, new drama emerged about the latest heroes and villains, and how long they would last.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should.

Tune in tomorrow…

The 24-hour cable news cycle made things worse. Now each day is a scramble for headlines, especially for the morning news programs and talk shows. News doesn’t happen overnight, unless it’s from somebody tweeting in the early morning to drive the day’s narrative.

Routine candidates with their standard stump speeches don’t change much from day to day. When they do, that’s news. Television wants drama. Policy isn’t dramatic. October surprises, gaffes, bloopers, hot mics, and emotional face-to-face challenges all are.

That’s why audiences pay no attention to Elizabeth Warren’s endless plans to solve the nation’s problems. They’d much rather watch her challenge Michael Bloomberg on how he treated women in his company.

Mix ’em up

In this roughly two-year season of what we can call “The Presprentice,” we passed the point where audience boredom set in around the end of December. That’s why the political producers of this elimination show planned the early caucuses and primaries. These build excitement, then start driving the eliminations in earnest.

Doesn’t Super Tuesday sound like something that should be scheduled during Sweeps Month?

At this point in a season of the “Apprentice” franchises, the producers would trade players on the ever-shrinking teams. They’d bring back surprise guests from previous seasons to introduce new players and dynamics. In this year’s game, Michael Bloomberg is playing that role.

Like Trump, Bloomberg knows how to build a brand and is not afraid to outspend everyone else in advertising. His arrival late in the season changes the dynamics of the game.

That kind of shake-up causes new alliances, new enmities, new intrigues–and new topics of discussion. All this carries the drama forward to the dramatic two-part cliffhanger finale: the conventions and the general election in November.

And around that time, as with the “Bachelor/Bachelorette” franchises, you’ll get a hint of who the next contestants will be. Be sure to tune in!

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