As many of us scratch our heads at the spectacle that is the 2016 presidential election and wonder how a reality TV star is so close in the polls, we must look to the factors that allowed us to arrive at this juncture.
While it’s quite likely that the power vacuum in the Republican party allowed an unlikely candidate to fill that spot, it doesn’t fully explain the rise of Donald Trump in particular.
Is it possible that as a nation we have we watched so much bad television programming that our brains have confused reality from fiction? Have we subconsciously selected a candidate who we enjoy watching on TV rather than one who might be fit to lead a nation?
Trump, viewed by many as a loose-mouthed caricature of a person best known as the businessman who fired people on network television, has risen as a political contender because American culture percolated for long enough in poor quality media juices of its own making. In fact, Americans tune in to the boob tube more than nearly every other country, and we watch nearly twice as many hours of TV per week as countries like Sweden that boast higher quality education and social infrastructure.
So how does Bill Clinton factor into this whole mess?
President Bill Clinton may well have sealed our fate in 1996 when he signed into law the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Telecommunications Act. The bill, which reformed its predecessor from some 60 years earlier, may have had good intentions, but in reality, it folded under the pressure of special interest groups and deregulated media companies. The result was that the bill essentially removed barriers for the big media moguls to gobble one another up and consolidate, decreasing competition and with it the accountability and innovation that’s part and parcel with increased market share.
So why should that matter?
As Hunter College Media Studies Professor Isabel Pineda postured, “When we go to a restaurant, we get to choose from the items that are on the menu, but we don’t get to choose which items go on the menu.”
It’s precisely that model we face when it comes to television programming. It’s easy to think we have a lot of options – there are hundreds of channels to choose from – but what we don’t realize is that the content we choose from is decided by a select few and is surprisingly similar in nature. Reality TV, plain and simple, has been cheap to produce and until very recently, earned high ratings. It was a win-win for the media moguls and the public didn’t give a fleeting thought to the damage they might be doing to our brains, let alone to the precipitous effects of that to our daily, civic life.
A study prepared by Common Cause that analyzed the fallout from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 found that in the ten years after the bill was signed, broadcasters consistently failed to provide programming that served the public interest, citing that they, “…extolled the country’s need for high-quality free over-the-air TV, [and] have found ways to make lowest-common-denominator reality TV shows, to shrink their news staffs, and to resist any requirements that they serve the public interest in specific ways.”
Donald Trump’s show, The Apprentice, in which individuals show off their business savvy to compete for sizable monetary prize, aired on NBC in the golden age of reality TV from 2004 to 2015. The emergence of The Apprentice is owed to the hundreds of popular reality TV shows that came before it, with many crediting The Survivor, which first aired in 2000, just four years after the Telecommunications Act, as the one that kicked it all off.
In fact, during the time when Trump was firing contestants on his show, there were more than six dozen talent competition reality shows, close to four dozen other business reality shows, more than three dozen reality TV shows about families, two dozen dating and love shows, nearly 30 life improvement shows, and a smattering of reality TV shows about everything from rich wives and polygamy to Amish people and lesbians, backwoods dwellers, preachers’ daughters, and more.
We have filled our heads with so much reality TV, it’s possible we’ve altered our brain chemistry.
In fact, multiple studies have found that watching television has myriad negative effects, including shorter attention spans, behavioral problems, inability to succeed in school, and more. Sound like someone with an orange comb over we know?
“Reality TV is junk food for our brain, and in the same way that junk food rots our teeth and makes us sick, bad reality TV rots our brain and makes us rude,” Dr. Marcia Sirota, a psychiatrist, coach and professional speaker told the Toronto Sun.
According to an American Time Use survey released by the U.S. Government this June, the biggest leisure activity for those over the age of 15 was watching TV (Nielsen’s first quarter results, adults spend an average of 35 hours watching television each week). Of particular interest, those over the 50 watched more TV than any other demographic, clocking in an average of 47 hours per week. Those in the 18 to 34 range watched the least amount, at 20 hours per week (though still averaging nearly three hours per day). Accounting for factors like the age and its correlation to value sets, perhaps it’s no surprise that the largest swath of Trump supports are 65 and older.
Bill Clinton may have unintentionally let Pandora out of the box. It’s quite possible Trump’s rise to fame wouldn’t have happened had Bill not signed that bill that fateful date and unleashed the TV zombie apocalypse that allowed the short tempered New Yorker to become a familiar face in living rooms across the nation.Of course, we can’t blame solely our television viewing habits for the rise of Donald, but regardless, it sure wouldn’t hurt us to put the TV remote down and pick up a good book between now and Election Day.
Of course, we can’t blame solely our television viewing habits for the rise of Donald, but regardless, it sure wouldn’t hurt us to put the TV remote down and pick up a good book between now and Election Day.