Why the worst TV shows make it to the top

Let’s apply an assumption of noted Austrian economist FA Hayek to American television viewing habits, shall we?

I’ll begin by describing the experience that provoked this article. A sweaty, semi-obese white guy wearing camo while panting in some horribly humid jungle, snapping thin little vines to wrench out a few scarce droplets of water, stumbling and falling over thick overgrowth . . . and, click, I change the channel away from “Dual Survival: Twin Peaks” on the Discovery Channel. I was tired that night and wanted to see something other than a grungy reality TV show.

Nature’s nursery
After some channel surfing, I ended up at BYUtv, a college television channel that somehow found its way to my satellite TV package. There was a nature show on, like the ones the Discovery Channel used to air, and immediately it drew me in. Golden light shone from treetops as Bengal tigers, with their trademark facial markings, listened keenly to every noise the jungle produced, completely in sync with their surroundings. I saw the ancient ancestor of the modern chicken, the red jungle fowl, which look like a chicken but with richer, blood-red and green colorings. A monkey furtively scratched in the sand to dig up a root, and a believer in evolution might have contemplated just how many proverbial scratches it took for such a creature to evolve to be human. At that moment, the Sundarbans forest seemed like Nature’s nursery.

I marveled at the degree to which animals are subject to the laws of their environment, and how mankind was able to break free from many of those laws. Another momentous scene was of a thick brownish mist out of which there appeared a long skiff filled with men who seemed to be hunting otters splashing in the water below. As it turns out, the otters were trained to swim around and scare fish into fishnets, functioning like little aquatic hunting dogs.

The pleasant show I write of is called “Passport Earth: Swamp Tigers of the Sundarbans.” In it were people and animals in harmony with their environment. As I reflected on the many inspiring scenes of nature, I wondered why those poor people watching the Discovery Channel had to settle for observing two sweaty, overweight guys donned in camo for an entire hour. There had to be some sort of conspiracy to deprive viewers of pleasant, inspiring programming. But my better sense told me that television networks are simply out to make money, so why would such a miserable show end up being what people want to watch?

The lowest common denominator?
The answer may lie in an assumption made by political theorist FA Hayek. In explaining why so many bad politicians rise to power Hayek offered a salient observation:

“It is probably true that, in general, the higher the education and intelligence of individuals become, the more their views and tastes are differentiated and the less likely they are to agree on a particular hierarchy of values. It is a corollary of this that if we wish to find a high degree of uniformity and similarity of outlook, we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and ‘common’ instincts and tastes prevail. This does not mean that the majority of people have low moral standards; it merely means that the largest group of people whose values are very similar are the people with low standards. It is, as it were, the lowest common denominator which unites the largest number of people.”

This would seem to describe why reality TV shows have come to dominate television screens across America. The “lowest common denominator” tends to be drawn to reality TV more than any other television genre. But before answering why catering to the lowest common denominator results in the most viewers, we must explain why more intellectual programming fails to do so.

But before answering why catering to the lowest common denominator results in the most viewers, we must explain why more intellectual programming fails to do so.

The reason more elevated programming doesn’t draw as many people is that educated people tend to have specified, well-developed interests. For example, a Civil War buff may already know everything the History Channel would present on the subject. Moreover, a Civil War buff is not guaranteed to be interested in a show relating to WWII or the Industrial Revolution. Thus, airing intellectual material means walking a tightrope between catering to a small brainy base and making it basic enough for the casual viewer. But in the final analysis, it’s easier to simply target the less educated people who will go for anything dramatic, so the History Channel no longer airs much history and mostly airs shows like “Pawn Stars,” “Big Rig Bounty Hunters,” and “Swamp People,”
which cater to a broader audience.

It seems the majority of shows on the Discovery and History Channels fall under the genre of “petty negotiation,” or, “How much is your junk worth?” as well as “quasi-freak shows” featuring human backwoods wonders who speak charming, subtitled patois and grow impressively long beards. It’s important to remember, however, that while the majority of Americans do not watch these particular shows, the largest collectives of individuals do, numbering at most in one night 5 million out of roughly 254 million Americans age 15 and older.

Such reality shows attract a larger bulk audience even if the audience is less enthusiastic than the average viewer of a show on actual history. To make matters worse, it seems that catering to the lowest common denominator hurts people with more education, because they may find themselves settling for shows on the Discovery Channel like “Dual Survival,” “Moonshiners,” and “Property Wars” instead of shows they would otherwise find more fulfilling.

From TV shows to politicians
Additionally, it would stand to reason that those with low standards would be more strongly influenced by commercials, being that their interests are less self-propelled. They are the ideal audience for television networks which make money from selling commercial time.

Bearing all this in mind, it should be consoling that the same forces that give us “Duck Dynasty” and “Storage Wars” also provide us with our elected officials. As Hayek explained, what matters in politics is that a candidate builds coalitions, and growing a coalition often means being as vague as possible, without delving into any intellectual or theoretical debates.

Indeed, modern speeches among powerful politicians are often so bereft of any references to reality or recognizable philosophies that the pols sound like self-help gurus or something. The driving coalition behind any political candidate is usually a minority of the citizenry, but such an alliance is necessary to enable a candidate to win a primary and move on to the general election. Indeed, instead of candidates with well-developed principles or even a tenable plan to fix things, we often get sloganeering ones who seem to cater to the lowest common denominator. They behave as if taking a stand on something is uncouth or something. What’s worse, good people end up supporting them just as they often end up watching reality TV.

Granted, we lack the statistical survey-gathering capability here at the Independent Gazette to prove empirically that Hayek’s assumptions about political power apply to television viewing, but it seems like most of my assertions build upon good deductive foundations—to this author, at least. In any case, the comparison certainly raises some interesting questions.

At the end of the day, if the television shows are what they are, and politicians are who they are, then it seems reasonable that a reflective individual get off the beaten path once in awhile and look for a college television channel or perhaps a third party or political unknown in politics, if only to find something a little more pleasant in life.

  • Joseph George
  • Joseph is a King’s College grad whose regular blog posts may be found at http://nepateaparty.com/speak

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