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Primary Reality TV

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This past Sunday, George Stephanopolous asked John Edwards if the "alliance" he seemed to be creating with Senator Obama was one of convenience or conscience. That's when I knew that reality television had crept into politics. Or maybe my household watches too much Survivor. Actually I think both are true.

Then I read Maureen Dowd's New York Times column yesterday. She spoke with a New Hampshire voter who said "This is not American Idol. Voters have to vote smart." It struck me that this voter is right and wrong. He's right -- there is no such thing as a smart American Idol vote. It's all about emotions -- not a single part of that decision is intellectual. And on the other hand, he's wrong. American Idol has indeed rubbed off on this election season.

We watch a lot of reality television in our home. Eileen says it's because she is a television executive. That may explain the TIVO season passes for Survivor and maybe even Dancing with the Stars although I'm not sure it extends to American Gladiators which Eileen suggested we watch with our thirteen year-olds last week. But clearly Eileen is not alone. America is crazy for reality shows. And now, with the writers' strike, it's the only thing to be crazy about. Except for new reality show capturing the attention of American viewers: Primary Season.

Americans today seem politically awake and alert in a way that feels so very different and so very good. And it is. I and many Americans are hungry to watch the coverage of the primaries in a way we never have before. And we are getting a level of coverage we have never gotten before. I watched with fascination all those white people voting in Dixville Notch, NH (did anyone else notice that there is a big hair loss problem in that town? The camera angle showed a sea of bald heads). I watched people caucus in their dining rooms. It felt so personal, so real! Oh, and then Hillary's nearly-tearly exchange in Portsmouth -- there she was -- even Hillary was real!!!!

We are hungry for reality. Or what we have come to understand reality to be. Finely edited glimpses of what really happened, something that involves emotion or dare we ask for this - intimacy. We don't even mind being manipulated into believing there is a story when there really isn't one.

There has been much talk about our hunger for hope and how desperately Americans are looking for someone who can paint a picture of a better world, a safer world, a world in which we all play nicely together. But I think there is more to it. We want to touch and be touched.

Eight years ago, we picked the president we most wanted to have a beer with. The only storyline of his sad reality show is that he presents himself as a good guy and he shoots people he thinks are bad guys. Since that election, the world has gone horribly awry and at the same time, Americans have been fed a steady diet of reality shows. This combination has heightened our appetite for change but only if there is a story and, like all good Survivor fans know, if we have plenty of opportunity to dissect the strategy behind that story.

The Republican primary candidates don't have a storyline yet. What's the drama? What's the contest? We don't know yet and until we can see the storyline clearly, it will hard be to get the emotional payoff from that show. Democrats on the other hand, have two candidates who are potential "winners". A complex set of contrasts, a contest that could go either way, with each competitor offering contrasting skills, each of them an underdog in their own way, both reaching for the history books. One of them can speak and give viewers goose bumps and the other drips competence out of every pore and comes complete with a family subplot that could be a spin-off of its very own. Now that makes for great reality television.

Primary Season is a hit. Even my eighty-year-old mother, a lifelong Republican, is paying attention, ready to vote W off the island. But with no new dramas on television (except for Lost - and we SO don't want a world that looks like that) and a diet consisting of reality shows, Americans are looking at this political season in a new way, paying more attention, watching more closely, connecting with the storylines. But what are they really taking away?

The good news is that reality shows have at least gotten us into the habit of voting. The problem is that we are now trained to vote using all the wrong criteria. The best game player on Survivor is often the person who lies and manipulates his/her way to the top. A most likely winner on Idol is clearly the most popular and not the most talented (can you say Melinda Doolittle?).

Primary Season is not a reality show. It is reality. And so very much is at stake. Many people are watching primary coverage. Maybe it's about the political process and an interest from Americans in the issues, but I don't think so. I think Primary Season is just the latest reality hit.

We can only hope that while Americans are busy trying to determine the "strategy" behind a passionate and exhausted public servant's tearful moment that viewers stick around long enough to catch some information about what that candidate really stands for.

Reality demands it.

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