The Reality of 'American Idol'

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On Tuesday, the two American Idol finalists will sing their last songs of the competition. Viewers will then have only hours to call in their votes. No matter who is chosen as the next American Idol on Wednesday, commentator James Poniewozik says it's clear that one part of the political spectrum is the winner on reality television.


Get ready to dial in. On Tuesday, the two "American Idol" finalists will sing their last songs of the competition and viewers will have only hours to call in their votes. No matter who's announced as the next American Idol on Wednesday, commentator James Poniewozik says it's clear that one part of the political spectrum is the winner when it comes to reality television.


If there's one thing that everybody knows, it's that liberal blue-staters run Hollywood and use it to foist their values on America. We take for granted that the media is one big brainwashing machine, and blue-staters push the buttons.

There's just one problem with this worldview. If you watch reality TV, you'll notice that there are a lot of clashes between blue states and red states, and the red states usually win. Nowhere is this more obvious than on "American Idol," which red-staters dominate as thoroughly as they do presidential elections. This week, sweet home Alabama's Bo Bice takes on Oklahoma's Carrie Underwood. Last year, it was North Carolina vs. Georgia; the year before, North Carolina vs. Alabama. The only blue-stater even to make it to the finals was Philadelphia's Justin Guarini, who battled Texan Kelly Clarkson and went down like Michael Dukakis.

Of course, "American Idol's" winner is chosen by viewers, but on reality shows where producers control the content, blue-staters come off even worse. ABC's hit "Wife Swap," for instance, trades spouses from different backgrounds, usually divided along red-blue lines. In general, the blue-staters--white-collar moms, hippies, etc.--are portrayed as too lenient, career-obsessed and out of touch with their kids, while the red moms are grounded and nurturing. One rural mom weeps when she learns that the Manhattan woman she swaps with employs nannies. "Wife Swap" pulls better ratings in red states than on the coasts. Wonder why?

Meanwhile, CMT is airing "Popularity Contest," in which 10 city slickers go to the small town of Vega, Texas, to ingratiate themselves with the residents, who vote off one contestant a week. The Vegans reward the players they see as most honest and sincere. The first to go was a woman who offended her host family by asking if they had any soy milk. No way was a vegan (pronounced vee-gun) going to become a Vegan (pronounced vay-gun).

The message throughout these reality shows amounts to `Country people are real; city people are fake. Red-staters wholesome; blue-staters sleazy.' Why would blue-state TV producers broadcast such a self-loathing image? On some level, they probably believe their own worst stereotypes. There's a condescension at work, too: the belief that sophisticated city folks can take a joke, while it would be cruel to treat poor, naive country mice the same way.

But above all, there's the fact that Americans--from Election Day to "American Idol"--just seem to like red-staters, and it means better ratings and more money to give the people what they want. This, in the end, is what unites all Americans. Red or blue, our business executives all bleed green.

NORRIS: James Poniewozik writes for Time magazine.

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