2006 America's Choice: Proposal for Problem-Solving, Citizen-Participatory Reality TV. Part I of II



PART I: the Case for Civic Reality TV
 WGA registered 12/06 revised 9/07

For more than 50 years, [television] has been the best, most efficient way to communicate with the largest possible audience. 
This probably won’t change any time soon. What is changing is our definition of a large audience and the value we are placing on it.

- Shelly Palmer, Television Disrupted: the Transition from Network TV to Networked TV


Could reality TV be the future of American politics? Seems impossible. But think about it. Interactive, voter-driven reality TV is the most powerful large-audience decision-making process ever devised by man or woman. How do we know this? The answer is not hard to see. In its sixth season of about 20  one-hour shows, American Idol garnered a total of over 500 million viewer votes.

Half a billion votes.That's about four times larger than voter turnouts for recent presidential elections

America's Choice, the politically-themed reality TV proposed here, uses this extraordinary vote-getting power to inform and engage Americans of all ages and backgrounds in the government decisions that affect their lives. This engagement is both productive and patriotic. It focuses on finding the best solutions to the problems that confront the nation. And on maximizing the best opportunities. It informs citizens and strengthens the relationship between citizens and government by making both parties responsive and accountable to each other in shaping the nation's future. And it removes the barriers that are preventing all but a small number of highly qualified Americans from even considering a career in politics.

America's Choice does all this by enhancing the integration of the Internet, telephony and network TV first pioneered by American Idol. For the following six reasons, we believe that this model points to the most likely future for American politics as politics is conducted at local, state and national levels:
  1. American politics is ripe for renewal. For decades American politicians have lost credibility with the largest of large audiences: that of the American people. Politicians’ approval ratings, now at historic lows, will continue to drop until American politics is reinvigorated in the eyes of the American people and their elected leaders.
  2. This renewal will occur not only on the Internet but also on network TV as the primary mediator of the relationship between citizens and government in America for the past 50 years.
  3. Awaiting this renewal is a large audience - a market of the whole - of 300 million Americans, including 142 million registered voters, 73 million unregistered adults and 17 million future voters now in high school. The prospect of delivering this market to sponsors is network TV’s financial incentive to commit to this renewal.
  4. Of all large audience media formats, only interactive Reality TV is capable of effecting this renewal in a coherent and structured manner. Reality TV is the most powerful large-audience interactive media format ever devised. Although to date it has been used for entertainment purposes only, the transition from entertainment to political and civic purposes is entirely predictable. (Note that voter-driven reality TV shows we see today are themselves mimics of the voter-driven process of democracy.)
  5. Patriotism and civic purpose inherently constitute what Shelly Palmer calls the "full value" of this largest of large audiences: the market of the whole of all 300 million Americans.
  6. Two overriding trends are converging in ways that could compel not some but all politically-concerned mainstream media to strive to tap this market of the whole. These are viewer/user demand for interactive media experiences (Internet, telephony, voter-driven reality TV) and voter/citizen demand for a stronger voice in the political decisions that affect their lives (as measured by political polls and seen in the 67 million votes cast in the historic 2006 mid-term Congressional elections).
The powerful impact of interactive political blogs and streaming media gave strong voice to voter voicelessness during the 2006 Congressional elections. But this sea-change in the demands for interactive media and for government that listens to citizens was merely a harbinger of the coming full convergence of these two demands. America’s Choice, a prime-time politically-themed reality TV program, will tap the market of the whole by serving the nation as a ongoing public forum that gratifies both demands in ways that the improve the efficiency and effectiveness of goverment.

For any system of political discourse to attract a very large audience and, at the same time, to benefit the nation it serves, its creators and produces must attend carefully to the polarity of needs and desires that compels citizens (politicians included) to want to use it. This polarity is the contrast between two desires: that for independence (freedom from limits) and that for interdependence (membership in a community, citizenship in a country). These desires are divergent yet kindred: they are the two sides of the coin of freedom. In a viable democracy, they complement and counterbalance each other, like siblings in a strong family. But in recent years, the American economy, in its ability to gratify massive demand for individual independence, has lost much of ability to provide a strong sense of social interdependence.

Modern communications technologies in particular have abundantly met the desire for individual independence. In doing so, they have neglected to give Americans a sense of membership in a unified nation. For all too many Americans, citizenship - patriotism itself - has lost its meaning. This loss every American today can feel in his or her bones.

America’s political mood today, as we see it, boils down to a thwarted yearning for national unity, or interdependence.

This not to say that Americans are not unified: they are, but at present, their unity, vis-a-vis their attitudes towards their elected representatives, is negative. Polls show that Americans are united in their frustration with government gridlock, with red/blue polarization, and with the political attack ads that have skewed American election outcomes for decades. If we think of American politics in terms of poles of national unity and national disunity, this negative unity suggests that the pendulum may be swinging from independence towards interdependence. Yet with no prospect of a constructive unity in sight, the yearning for unity gives way – gave way, years ago - to the negative unity of anger, cynicism, apathy and indifference that is seen today.

In today’s intensely interactive media culture, this yearning exists largely as an unmet, unspoken, pent-up demand for positive interactive political media experiences: experiences that will unify the nation and improve the government effectiveness.

This 22-page treatment shows how America’s Choice, as a realized instance of politically-themed Reality TV (hereafter PTRTV), meets demand in ways that will widely be seen as beneficial to the nation. The program is designed to use the dynamic power of reality TV to renew and reinvigorate American politics in the eyes of the American people and their elected leaders.

America’s Choice is designed to enable tens of millions of Americans of all ages and backgrounds to use their computers, cell phones and TV sets to participate in a large audience decision making process that is no more and no less experimental (and exciting) than America’s original “experiment with democracy”, as Thomas Jefferson habitually spoke of it.

As a non-partisan, issue-centered and solution-oriented public forum, America’s Choice is designed help realize the promise of democracy in a digital age. It gives all Americans an informed voice in the political decisions that affect their lives. And its ongoing, problem-solving dialogs of citizens and government, aired prime-time aired, potentially, on multiple TV networks, facilitates intelligent, far-sighted decisions in the national interest.

America’s Choice adds a strong intellectual component to the emotional connection between viewers and contestants that has made reality TV so successful. Instead of dumbing the nation down, televised political attack ads have done, America's Choice smartens it up.

As American Idol’s 570 billion votes confirm, most of the resources needed to create an advisorial, nonpartisan, issue-centered political decision making process are already in place. Here's how America's Choice will accomplish this civic task.


The race is on among cable and broadcast TV networks to develop the most compelling PTRTV format. Early entries, now in production, will target viewers in the 18-35 age group. To this end, Survivor-producer Mark Burnett and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp have announced the creation of “Independent”, a politically themed Reality TV show targeting young adults that will debut in 2008 on YouTube. In addition, reality TV programming tracking the first year in Washington of two freshmen Congressmen is in the works at ABC-TV.

Three REWARDS of surpassing value await the winner of this race. They are
  • FINANCIAL. The winning format will deliver to advertisers the largest of all possible large audiences: the Market of the Whole of all 300 million Americans. It will offer sponsors access, perhaps exclusive, to this uniquely patriotic and dynamic market and all of its sub-markets, with strong emphasis on the 18-35 age group.
  • CIVIC. The winning format will have the stature of a national symbolic moment. Televised Sunday evenings throughout much of the year, this unifying and patriotic moment will do much to reinvent for the 21st century what it means to be an American.
  • JOURNALISTIC. The winning format will renew TV’s historic role as the trusted de facto mediator between citizens and government in America. Its impact on the nation’s existing system of political discourse will compare with or surpass American Idol’s impact on popular culture.

That said, PTRTV is not without risk to the country, to its producers and to its sponsors. In our media-driven society, mass media have equal power to degrade or to strengthen American politics, and to this rule PTRTV is no exception. On the need to improve American politics, one may expect general agreement from everyone associated with PTRTV: producers, contestants, advertisers, host networks and viewers. Yet each of these entities will value PTRTV differently.
  • Producers and its host network will value it for the size of its audience and appeal to advertisers.
  • Advertisers will value it as a market of consumers to be tapped
  • Politicians will value it for the opportunity to persuade voters
  • Viewers/voters will value it, in effect, as the people’s lobby: as a way for citizens to be heard on the issues that matter most
The obvious challenge to producers is to design a product this is valued by all these parties. These differing and competing valuations of PTRTV recall Shelly Palmer’s important observation that “What is changing [in today’s media universe] is our definition of a large audience and the value we are placing on it”.

One fundamental audience change is occurring on broadcast and cable TV networks, which are competing fiercely to develop programming that captures the largest of large audiences.

The largest audience, it goes without saying, is that of all 300 million Americans. This audience, it is important to say, is inherently patriotic and civic in value. It literally IS America. To be valued properly, it must be addressed and consulted in civic terms. For PTRTV to succeed, all participating (and competing) entities must share this core civic value.

STRENGTHS At first glance, the task of developing PTRTV contests that engage voters, non-voters and future voters alike may seem impossible. Yet PTRTV has four strengths that make this task manageable.
  • A Powerful Common language. PTRTV inherits from entertainment-themed reality TV much of the common language - the compelling mix of visual, verbal, auditory and emotive cues – that has already been shown to attract all segments of this all-inclusive audience. The winning PTRTV format needs only to perfect this common language in a civic and patriotic context. In so doing, it will make the nuances of complex political decisions far more vital, accessible and fascinating to voters, non-voters and future voters than has been possible in the past.
  • The Great Game of Democracy. Americans love voter-driven contests with one man left standing, as Survivor producer Mark Burnett has shown. Indeed, most voter-driven reality TV shows are themselves little democracies. And because American democracy is itself a game of elections with one candidate left standing, the application of reality TV to democracy – of a media format and a form of government – is a natural fit. The winning PTRTV format will be the one that engages the largest number of Americans in the best game of democracy.
  • Appeal to Viewer Self-Interest. The made-for-TV worlds of existing entertainment-themed reality TV programs have little or no impact on the lives of their viewers. By contrast, the winning PTRTV format will be the one that gives viewers/voters the best informed and strongest voice in the real-world political decisions that hit their pocket-books, affect their communities and shape the nation’s future.
  • Positive Impact. Because Americans, tired of politics as usual, yearn for new and better ways of doing politics, the winning PTRTV format will not be just a game. It will have real impact and, just as important, the right amount of impact: not too much and not too little. The winning format will be the one whose impact is credible with the public and public officials alike. In our view, it will have an advisory impact comparable to that of political polls. Over time, it will make citizens and government more responsive and accountable to each other in shaping the nation’s future, as polls do. Americans will think of PTRTV as tool – a mediating medium – that citizens and government routinely make use of in order to make hard, informed decisions which by national consensus are in the national interest.
Properly produced, PTRTV opens the sluices of pent-up viewer/voter demand for interactive and productive politics.

By contrast with a money-driven political system that arguably brings out the worst in America, PTRTV strives to bring out the best.

Its extended, in-depth, prime time searches for solutions to the problems that face the nation will, in addition, attract and galvanize America’s vast network of political organizations, operating at local, state and national levels.

In time, PTRTV itself will function at local and state as well as national levels.

Once the American people have tasted PTRTV’s power to make their voices heard in Washington – and once the people and their elected representatives have tasted its power to educate and inform and its power to generate fascinating and productive civic discourse – there will be no looking back. So what might this programming look like and how might it work?


Reality TV’s dynamic flexibility as a format opens the way to a myriad of PTRTV formats. That said, America’s Choice maximizes the synergy between interactive media and voter-driven democracy in ways that rival designers will be hard pressed to match.

America’s Choice will be instantly familiar to Americans as a reality TV show. There are many carry-overs from American Idol, Survivor and other shows. Viewers will see America's Choice is a contest of 16 telegenic yet very diverse individuals who are competing for the title of Best Problem Solver during the course of a rigorous four-month search. On it, they will find all the drama, personal intimacy and public spectacle that draws them to reality TV. And they will also find something entirely new: an invitation and a challenge to viewers from the show’s host to participate in the search for the Best Solution to a hot-button issue of critical importance to the nation. This may be health care, immigration, gangs and drugs or the situation in the Middle East. (In coming years, AC can move from solving problems to maximizing opportunities. Think of contests to design the best affordable housing, to devleop the best alternative energy source, or to design the best Federal tax code.)

When viewers accept this invitation, they themselves become issue-centered problem-solvers, like the contestants. They bond and identify with one or more contestants. This is important. If you like a singer on American Idol, you don’t usually sing with that singer: you just listen. But when you bond with an AC contestant, you begin to think as your contestant thinks. You want to exchange views with him or her. Between episodes, you are, like the contestant, learning all about the hot-button issue, discussing the pros and const with friends and family, mulling over other contestants' solutions, even formulating your own. This shared cognitive activity at the sending and viewing ends of the TV signal opens new dimensions of interactivity to reality TV and to American political discourse as well.

To maximize the constructive potential of this new dimension, AC uses modern communications technologies to enable viewers and contests to interact with each other in near real-time. For instance, contestants and viewers will interact with each other via issue-centered AC websites that gather, organize, disseminate and even verify information. Fans can also access fee-based live video feeds of off-air, between-show meetings of contestants and other events.

Successful voter-driven reality TV shows have been shown to generate enormous external coverage in the nation's news and entertainment media. By generating comparable coverage, AC will spark a larger, off-air search for solutions in the nation’s political media. This external coverage will obviously heighten interest in the on-air search occuring on America's Choice. Much external media coverage will be purposeful and productive because AC’s ongoing search for the best solution is structured to produce not just a winning contestant but, as we have shown, a best solution. (Both the adequacy and status of the winning solution can be revisited in subsequent episodes of the show). In this way, ongoing AC problem-solving dialogs will play a significant - yet, by design, limited and merely advisorial - role in the decision-making process that shapes the nation’s future.

America's Choice is an ongoing, interactive public forum and town meeting for all Americans: young and old, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, believers and non-believers and city, suburban and country dwellers alike. By giving all citizens repeated opportunities to vote on the best available information for weeks on end, this public forum will produce a better-informed citizenry. It will increase voter turnouts. It will give Americans new reasons to enter the field of politics. In time, it will help change the culture of apathy and anger that blights American politics today. To do all this, and to develop solutions to problems that are sensible and far-sighted, it meets nine essential criteria:
  1. From a commercial standpoint – in order to capture the market of the whole – it connects emotionally with viewers, like all reality TV.From a technological standpoint, it delivers the unlimited interactive resources of the Internet to the unmatched broadcast reach of network and cable TV, as does interactive reality TV.
  2. From the standpoint of voter sentiment, and at a time of growing mistrust of government in general, it offers the nation a patriotic and unifying national civic moment.
  3. From a political standpoint, it is non-partisan and non-ideological. The winning solution - "America's Choice" - is determined by viewer vote is advisory and non-binding on the existing political system, like political polls.
  4. From a civic standpoint, it is an impartial, rule-governed, mediating medium. Its passionate debates on matters affecting the lives of all Americans restore civility to American political discourse by outlawing the partisan and below-the-belt ad hominem attacks that mar the existing political system.
  5. From the standpoint of America’s existing system of political discourse – of news media, lobbyists, think tanks, pundits, polls and election eve political ads – it does not oppose but complements and enhances the existing system.
  6. From the standpoint of sponsors, it offers advertisers a dynamic and patriotic branding opportunity all 300 million Americans.
  7. From a financial standpoint, it is underwritten and produced on a sufficiently high production standard to make possible the development of an audience larger and more dedicated than that of American Idol.
  8. From the standpoint of American democracy, it belongs to the American people. It is owned and managed in trust by individuals whose interest in financial gain is balanced by their commitment to government of, by and for the people. Programming that misleads or misinforms the people will eventually lose credibility with the viewing public. Only programming that gets results – whose efficacy and utility is widely acknowledged - will thrive.
Posted 27th February 2009 by