Pop artist Andy Warhol once said that everyone in the future would be famous for fifteen minutes. With the increasing popularity of the reality show genre, Warhol’s prediction seems to be coming true, at least for a particular segment of the population that is willing to endure humiliation in order to become famous by participating in a reality show.
Fame can be fleeting, and one wonders why a rational person would agree to appear on a television program where they would be required to eat the testicles of a cow or live insects in order to earn a small amount of money.
When the yearly programming cycle of American Idol begins, the show starts with scenes from the national auditions, where tens of thousands of people show up in the hopes of winning a record contract that probably earns more for the show’s producer than the show’s winner. Over the course of about twelve weeks, American Idol introduces us to the contestants at the auditions. Plenty of talented singers are shown, but American Idol also shows us people who think they can sing, but cannot, and I suppose we are meant to laugh at the tone-deaf contestant who is ripped apart by the show’s judges and sent out in tears. This footage is sometimes repeated in “worst of” episodes of the show. And if you are one of those unfortunate souls who is featured in an audition where you sound like nails scratching a chalkboard, know that your humiliation will be shown over and over again. It’s even spelled out in the contestant application that producers reserve the right to use all footage for as long as they want. I guess people aren’t reading the fine print on those applications. And surely by now people are familiar with the American Idol format, so it can be argued that the horrible singers knew what they were in for when they auditioned.
For many reality shows, the humiliation of the contestant is a selling point for the program. People tuned in to Fear Factor to watch contestants eat the sexual organs of animals, various live and dead insects, and other gastronomical concoctions the producers dreamt up. People watching the show would wonder, “What are they going to have to eat next week?”
The Weakest Link was a short-lived game show, imported from England, starring former British journalist and talk-show host Anne Robinson. The show’s format was quiz show, following the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire format with easy questions to start and harder questions as the show progresses. The show’s selling point was Robinson, who belittled and insulted contestants for answering questions wrong. During the course of the show, players were voted off by the other contestants (getting rid of the “weakest link”). When the player had to leave, Robinson would utter, “You are the weakest link, goodbye!” and then turn her back on the contestant as they left the set. Humiliation was the key to the show’s success, but after a few seasons, viewers grew tired of the show and it was cancelled.
It’s interesting to note that The Weakest Link and American Idol are both British imports, and both shows star acid-tongued Brits (Simon Cowell on American Idol) who deliver insulting put-downs to contestants, which would seem to indicate that a British audience enjoys the put-downs and insults.
Another British import that aired on Fox was Hell’s Kitchen, starring Gordon Ramsay, a popular “celebrity chef” in England. Hell’s Kitchen was all about humiliation. The contestants were your standard-issue reality show bunch, and the show followed the basic reality show template, involving various competitions and the elimination of a contestant in each episode.
The prize on Hell’s Kitchen was a restaurant. When the show started, Ramsay claimed his methods could make anyone a top-notch chef, and what progressed was a sort of boot-camp format, with Ramsay acting as drill instructor (he’s accompanied by two other chefs in this task). Contestants were awakened at 5:00 a.m. by Ramsay’s chefs banging metal lids and quickly forcing the contestants to meet with Ramsay for that day’s festivities.
The last part of each episode played out with the opening of the Hell’s Kitchen Restaurant to “diners” while the contestants worked in the kitchen to prepare the dishes. In the first few weeks of the show, Ramsay screamed at contestants, hurled obscenities, and would even take a prepared dish of food and slam it into a contestant’s chest. Ramsay called an overweight contestant “Fatboy” – some of the contestants were driven to tears by Ramsay’s bullying. It’s hard to imagine that winning a restaurant would be worth the national humiliation of appearing on the show.
Curiously, the final two remaining contestants were chefs in “real” life. So much for Ramsay’s claim of turning anyone into a chef, as many of the contestants were not chefs but rather folks with an interest in cooking.
Tomorrow: PBS enters the kitchen.