How Reality TV Turns Debates Into 'White House Idol'

Vice President Biden and Republican Paul Ryan at Thursday night's debate. i i

Vice President Biden and Republican Paul Ryan at Thursday night's debate. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Vice President Biden and Republican Paul Ryan at Thursday night's debate.

Vice President Biden and Republican Paul Ryan at Thursday night's debate.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The first two debates of the 2012 election cycle have had stratospheric viewership on TV. Critic Bob Mondello isn't surprised. He argues we've spent the last decade training the public to watch contests on television and then vote — think American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

During the debates, networks all but beg us to kibitz in social media, which makes instant judgment universal. We're encouraged to watch for the purpose of reacting.

And the stories we like best? Underdogs triumphing, last minute comeback, a real horserace. Blowouts are less fun to watch than games that go into extra innings, which is why American Idol doesn't give out weekly vote totals. The show is manipulated to make things seem close because no one would watch week after week if the outcome weren't in doubt. In political races, the media are often accused of doing something similar, hyping polls that suggest a tightening contest.

So, no wonder we react in a big way after a televised debate, declaring winners and losers, swinging polls three or four points. We've been conditioned. But the things reality shows have conditioned us to look for — polish, brashness, engagement with the camera — are all surface, not things that have much to do with governing.

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Last night's vice presidential debate reached a large audience. And last week, well over 70 million people tuned in to the presidential debate. That's more than had watched any debate in more than three decades. Why such high viewership in a campaign season widely regarded as lackluster until last week? Critic Bob Mondello thinks he knows.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We have spent the last decade training the public to watch contests on television and then vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

RYAN SEACREST: And this is "American Idol."

MONDELLO: "American Idol." "Dancing with the Stars." Two of the most watched series on TV. And "The Voice," "X Factor," "America's Got Talent." All start with a field of candidates and arrive at a final showdown: competitors sharing a stage with a TV audience determining who's won.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

SEACREST: After a record-breaking 132 million votes.

MONDELLO: No voter registration hassles on "American Idol," obviously. That's a few million more than the presidential candidates got in 2008, and, yes, I know it's not the same when you can vote 10 times. But, imagine this...

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

JIM LEHRER: Good evening. From the Magnus Arena at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado.

MONDELLO: With music.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

LEHRER: I welcome you to the first of the 2012 presidential debates between President Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee.

MONDELLO: OK, no one's going to ask Jim Lehrer to host White House Idol - Martha Raddatz maybe. But there is a similarity in format here. At the end of the vice presidential debate last night, after CNN had put squiggly lines under the candidates indicating how a studio audience in Virginia thought they were doing in real time, the question, who won, flashed up on the screen. Within moments, there were instapolls answering that question, because these days the holy grail for TV in everything, from teen dramas to sports, is being interactive.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you have a question for Antonio, all you have to do is check out our Facebook page, NFLonESPN. You can ask the question and Antonio will be right here every Monday.

MONDELLO: Networks all but beg us to kibitz in social media about whether the ref made the right call, who the bachelorette should chose, from a lineup of guys in suits with good hair. Last night, it was widely thought that both candidates did pretty well. But, moderator Martha Raddatz got the best reviews for keeping them in line. Social media make instant judgment universal. We're encouraged to watch for the purpose of reacting.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Of the debate here, as voted on by people on Twitter.

MONDELLO: And the stories we like best? Underdogs triumphing, last minute comeback, a real horserace. Blowouts are less fun to watch than games that go into extra innings, which is why "American Idol" doesn't give out weekly vote totals. The show is manipulated to make things seem close because no one would watch week after week if the outcome weren't in doubt. In political races, the media are often accused of doing something similar, hyping polls that suggest a tightening contest.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: 47-45 our new Suffolk University poll. That's a dead heat, a statistical tie.

MONDELLO: So, no wonder we react in a big way after a televised debate, declaring winners and losers, swinging polls three or four points. We've been conditioned. But the things reality shows have conditioned us to look for - polish, brashness, engagement with the camera - are all surface, not things that have much to do with governing. When the chatter the day after a debate is about performance - did the president look down too much? Was the congressman smiling or smirking? We've left serious political discourse and entered White House Idol territory. Talent shows, like beauty contests, are all about style. There's another dimension to debates: content, the one thing we're never asked to judge on most reality shows. Being able to belt your big finish to the rafters is what matters on "American Idol." The quality of the lyrics? Not so much. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC FROM TELEVISION SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

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