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This story first appeared in the Aug. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
“Are we in a reality show?” asked NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press Aug. 16. “No. This is not a reality show. This is the real deal,” replied Donald Trump.
Trump was dissembling. Of course, we are in a reality show. Trump’s answer implied a binary: either he is a reality TV character or his candidacy is authentic. The choice is false: his candidacy is authentic and the campaign is structured according to the principles of reality television.
Just as in reality TV shows, modern presidential campaigns are a series of ordeals that place candidates under such a spotlight that we can glimpse their true character under stress. So far in Campaign 2016, only Trump’s persona — as the nativist populist with no time for political correctness — has captured the imagination, which is why he has dominated coverage to date. The debates are the winnowing process for Trump’s main rivals to hone their alternate personas.
For the mainstream television news media — the broadcast networks and CNN — this reality TV structure offers a safe haven in increasingly polarized times. The mainstream craves a political position of impartiality. The highly partisan midterm elections of 2014, for example, held no appeal for the weekday nightly newscasts of the broadcast networks, attracting only 133 minutes of coverage all year, fewer than any of the previous six midterm cycles. By contrast, the first seven months of 2015 (some eighteen months before Election Day), Campaign 2016 already has attracted 242 minutes.
Trump could force Ailes (right) to make a choice.
The emergence of Trump is golden. So far this August, the three broadcast networks’ supposedly-august Sunday morning political shows all have waived their usual insistence that interview subjects appear on camera. Trump was allowed to phone it in. The skilled reality-TV performer has an ear for the outrageous soundbite, all the better to lead a newscast. He understands that confrontation makes compelling television, thus freeing journalists to be less mealy-mouthed in their interviewing.
Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, when she confronted Trump about his history of sexism, must have been aware that reality TV can make a star of the panel member as easily as of the contestant. For Kelly, this was her Simon Cowell moment. The resulting feud was priceless: Trump’s vision of a bleeding Kelly; the journalistic high ground seized by Chris Wallace, FNC’s Sunday anchor, refusing to accept Trump’s phone-in; a conciliatory call between Trump and Roger Ailes, FNC’s chief; Trump’s reappearance on FNC programs as Kelly took her vacation.
Vince McMahon could not have choreographed a finer brouhaha with his WWE wrestlers.
Reality TV false-feuds aside, FNC may face a serious issue arising from Trump’s candidacy that the mainstream networks can happily ignore. The problem stems from FNC’s dual role: a media enterprise whose objective is to maximize ratings and a political enterprise whose objective is to maximize the electoral prospects of the Republican Party. It has not happened yet, but the day may come when FNC’s media ambitions and its political ambitions collide. It could be that Trump’s brand of nativist, chauvinist populism that drives ratings might turn out to be toxic to the Republicans’ prospects of assembling an electoral majority.
If such a day comes, FNC may have to decide whether its loyalty is to its viewers or to Republican would-be rulers. My bet is that Ailes, if forced, prefers to make reality TV rather than real governments.
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