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The Ideological Traditionalism of Reality Competition Programs

by Kira Mesch

art by Henley Childress

[originally published July 2021]


The 2021 Primetime Emmy nominees came out on July 13, and shows produced by streaming services swept the dramatic and comedy selections for best series and best limited series. Yet, with the exception of Netflix’s Nailed It!, the nominees in the “Competition Program” category all find their homes on network television. Top Chef (Bravo) and RuPaul’s Drag Race (VH1) are both produced by cable networks that host primarily “reality” content. The Amazing Race (CBS) and The Voice (NBC) are the rare nominated shows (with the exception of SNL) on what were formerly known as “Big Three” television networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC.

This is not to mention the FOX Network’s endless barrage of competition shows that have not been nominated for an Emmy award. These are shows produced by FOX, meant to be tuned into weekly in your living room on your television screen, free to watch as long as you have a TV set and time to sit through commercial breaks. They include: The Masked Singer, where celebrities like Sarah Palin sing songs like “Baby Got Back” while dressed like mascots; Beat Shazam, where teams try to guess songs before a large computer does so they can win money; The Masked Dancer, a spinoff of its singing-based predecessor, and so on. At its most simplistic, a dichotomy can be made between the opulent costumes and sets of Netflix’s The Crown and Rob Gronkowski rapping “Ice Ice Baby” in a tiger fursuit on Wednesday 8 p.m. ET.

Obviously, this begs the question: how have streaming services eclipsed cable networks in comedy and drama nominations, and yet competition programs still reign in the old guard of the cable networks, reveling in their studio audiences and increasingly outlandish concepts? Reality shows signify, in many ways, the last bastion of network television. It’s not like Netflix hasn’t tried its hand at creating individual competition programs. The prestige model of television production is antithetical to how competition shows are produced. Traditionally, competition shows rely on the suspense generated by ad-breaks. The method of storytelling is cheaper (no unionized actors). The shows need prize money, and are therefore haunted by the everpresent spectre of their sponsorships. For the past decade or so, contestants on the final legs of The Amazing Race have been forced to carry with them a one-foot-tall, plaster Travelocity gnome on their journeys. Mini challenges on Top Chef have been painfully sponsored from the show’s inception, featuring mystery ingredients wrapped in Reynolds Wrap, or ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery. I have never seen a sponsorship on a Netflix show.

Reality television represents not just conventional television formatting, but conventional ideologies. What the Emmys call “Competition Programs” are shows based on spectatorship, voyeurism, and catharsis. The narratives they uphold contain the capitalist ideals of earned success and meritocracy. Because of the continued success of these shows on traditional network television, their narratives reflect what increasingly powerful media conglomerates think of as “stories of America.” Any network cooking show worth its salt will have contestants cook for firefighters, or for veterans, or for cops at least once per season. During Bush-era seasons, contestants cooked for families of deployed service members. During the early years of the Obama administration, Top Chef pivoted its challenges to mirror Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Get Moving!” campaign by turning the focus to “health-conscious” meals for families. Even the ostensibly progressive Drag Race still purports to speak for America and its politics, bringing on Nancy Pelosi to introduce mini-challenges. In a 2016 episode of Drag Race, the queens compete to be “the first drag president of the USA.” None of this is to mention the rampant fetishization of developing countries and poverty tourism on The Amazing Race, of which a season would not be complete without at least one veteran or cop contestant.

Of course, these are all shows I watch and find deeply entertaining. I believe they are well produced and should be nominated for awards. However, the inability of the genre to move into a more “highbrow” format or onto more technologically-minded networks suggest a fundamental traditionalism about the genre. Arguably, competition programs serve the function of “bread and circuses,” placating a population increasingly burdened by debt and financial instability with the prospect of being on national television, and one day winning prize money. Competition programs as a genre hold at their cores a deeply insidious nationalism aimed at influencing and pacifying viewers, laid bare by the traditional formatting of network television.

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