Reality’s dysfunctional democracy

Call-in shows lead to questionable winners

WINSTON CHURCHILL once called democracy “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Despite an abiding admiration for Churchill, after analyzing results from recent competition shows that place power into the audience’s hands, here’s one man’s vote to restore TV’s status as an old-fashioned oligarchy.

Not to be blunt about it, but in those “America, you decide!” events, the wrong people have a bad habit of winning.

“Dancing With the Stars'” latest misstep follows “American Idol’s” litany of false notes, which included anointing Jordin Sparks as the winner after Melinda Doolittle thoroughly dominated the sing-off showcase. Much like Marie Osmond’s durability on “Stars,” “Idol” also kept talent-challenged Sanjaya Malakar around until even judge Simon Cowell wondered aloud whether his lingering presence would do damage to the franchise’s credibility. (Cowell has sucked enough honey from this hive that he needn’t be diplomatic, which is part of his charm.)

Networks are understandably enamored with their interactive call-in and text-messaging functions, which prove that people are actually watching and not just snoozing in front of the set. The millions that phone “Idol” each week feel invested in the outcome and demonstrate how engaged much of the audience is.

Even so, this “TV as a democracy” thing simply isn’t working as it once did, and the lackluster debut for Sparks’ CD could be another sign.

THE TRADITIONAL MIND-SET championed by Fox reality impresario Mike Darnell is that a little controversy is a good thing, helping keep shows in the news and adding zest to concoctions that risk growing stale through repetition. Yet there’s a fine line between public diversions that irritate people without much fear of fans abandoning the product — steroid-tainted baseball and college football’s maddening Bowl Championship Series come to mind — and TV shows, given how quickly hits (including unscripted ones, a la “The Apprentice”) can now cool or drift toward indifference.

Strange as it might sound, potential disenchantment with reality mirrors an attitude that for many has already crept into electoral politics. USC Annenberg School for Communication professor Marty Kaplan articulated this sentiment on the Huffington Post, lamenting “the stupendous sense of powerlessness among our citizenry that our current political system has created.”

Factors that sway voting and often have little to do with merit could be at work here, too. Little things like how contestants come across on camera or which groups participate in the biggest numbers — from “Idol’s” teenage girls to the GOP’s Christian right — exercise disproportionate influence. It’s one reason why candidates like Mike Huckabee (funny name) and Dennis Kucinich (even funnier ears) struggle to be taken seriously alongside more telegenic contenders.

Voters must tolerate the vagaries of democracy, but TV networks and viewers don’t. And while some folks clearly relish grumbling about miscarriages of justice as a pastime akin to debating who belongs in the hall of fame, repeated disappointments can cause others to lose faith if they deem the process consistently unfair. (In modern times, such people are frequently referred to as “Democrats” or, more recently, “the Writers Guild of America.”)

So come on, TV. If you want to safeguard your shows against a premature end, maybe it’s time to save Americans from themselves.

* * *

SPEAKING OF DEMOCRACY run amok, guessing what Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement and stump appearances will mean for Barack Obama has become a favorite game among political pundits.

After all, the daytime host’s seal of approval makes books fly off shelves and turns god-awful “Oprah Winfrey Presents” movies such as the upcoming “Mitch Albom’s For One More Day” into ratings blockbusters. Why shouldn’t “Oprah Winfrey Presents Barack Obama’s For One More Primary” do the same?

Although Winfrey’s marketing acumen and bond with her audience should never be underestimated, the product generally needs to reside within a certain niche, as evidenced by the few conspicuous flops with which she’s been associated, such as the movie “Beloved.” As a consequence, there’s reason for skepticism whether her message of self-empowerment and personal improvement will rub off onto a candidate hoping to improve America.

Of course, put Oprah herself on the ticket, and all bets are off.

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