Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Game Show and the Collective Good

The television game show provides an interesting perspective into the American psyche. In considering why viewers tune in -- what the attraction is -- two possibilities make themselves pronounced: either the psychological desire for the game show originates in witnessing conflict (expressed as competition), or it is a matter of vicarious enjoyment projected into the individual winning money.

If the answer is the former, then in a sense it matters little to the viewer what prize is being fought over. For example: in Spain there is an annual horse race, which has been run every year by the same families for generations upon generations. The families compete, but the goal is not to win the race by coming in first: rather, the goal is not to come in second. The goal is predicated on the assumption that if one places twenty-third, one was never in the running; but if one comes in second, one’s defeat becomes a crushing blow. So some families -- different families every year -- engage in all manner of schemes to see that one family or another is certain to come in exactly second. Furthermore, I imagine, they all wind up drunk together in the end, affably, if not beautifully engrossed in some harlequin melodrama. Yet my point was simpler than all this: the desire game shows satisfy, under this first interpretation, is the desire to witness conflict, no matter what the object.

The other interpretation posits that we like to watch contestants win money because it provides a way for viewers to imagine themselves winning money. This is reasonable enough, but the question ought then to be asked: if given a choice, would viewers strongly prefer to watch contestants winning money, or might they prefer to watch contestants compete on behalf of positive social initiatives?

As viewers aren’t really given a choice in the matter, we are left with a non-empirical discussion of cultural influences. But the question is worth asking because the asking illustrates that, in a culture which professes the value of choice, there are some very basic choices we just aren’t given. There exists the potential for television viewers, with their collective marketing pull, to actually help heal the world simply by imagining themselves doing so. Does this sound absurdly utopian? If so, why?

Why is the object of the game show always personal enrichment? Why can’t people in our culture receive vicarious pleasure from watching a contestant accomplish good deeds? Why don’t contestants play for rebuilding efforts in Lebanon, a library in Ghana, a college scholarship fund for high school seniors in Detroit, or startup capital for a micro-lending bank in South America? Are game show producers afraid of offending the political sensibilities of their audience by supporting international humanitarian efforts, more than by the ethics of the companies that sponsor their broadcasts? The studio audience could vote on a number of local, national, or international charities and nongovernmental organizations to mitigate any perceptions of bias on the part of producers...

Or we could all stop waiting for governments and private corporations to solve our global problems for us -- the organizations upon which we depend seem too often too busy with political infighting to adapt to constituencies in a timely manner. There have got to be enough individuals -- winning more money every week on game shows than the people who made their clothes will see in a decade or more -- who have gained enough material profit from their five minutes of fame that some modest organizational efforts on their part (or by advertisers on their behalf) could yield some real collective good.

Or maybe the problem isn’t any lack of a cultural desire to see good done, but that we Americans are kept so much in want of... everything.

In the President’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning in October 2007, funding for domestic programs (which include veteran care) is set to increase less than the rate of inflation, while funding for the Pentagon (excluding ongoing war costs) is increased more than three times the rate of inflation.

Although the White House has in the past boasted that its budgets offer “successful pro-growth policies,” there is ample evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, two facts remain unaddressed: first, our economy cannot grow forever because we live on a planet with limited resources; and second, neither typical Americans nor the domestic programs upon which we rely are seeing any of this growth. Economic growth is not inherently beneficial and these policies cannot be accurately characterized as successful.

At least we have enough advertising to constantly remind us how much we want, and to inform us of all the choices we have...

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