July 29, 2008
The following is a long paper I wrote with several other people. They will be kept anonymous, for their protection, but I thought I'd post it anyway.
Reality Show Judging: a New Code of Ethics
Salt Lake Community College
Group Community Writing Campaign
Reality TV shows' lack of fairness, ethics and good judgment are making an impact on popular culture. There is a lot of disagreement and discontentment with the values that are being transmitted to the viewers. Through research of several different types of reality shows, we have come up with ideas and ways to improve these shows. The most important things we are looking for are (1) qualified judges, since they represent justice (2) stopping multiple voting (3) assuring that judges cannot change their mind after a decision has been made, and (4) establishing a strict code of ethics between contestants and judges (which also includes: no unprofessional interaction and professional conduct on the parts of both contestants and judges, throughout the entire process, including prescreening). The expected outcome is a fair and enjoyable reality TV show.
In the last decade, the genre of reality television has become culturally iconic. TV shows, on which contestants compete, in particular, have enjoyed immense success. Programs that add viewer voting into the setup are watched and participated in by millions of people. The populous now has an even more direct influence on the “next big thing,” whether musicians, dancers, comedians, or even pets. As entertaining as these shows are, however, they are not immune from criticism. Upon closer examination, one can find many problems with the prescreening techniques, the voting process, and the objectivity of the judges -- problems which could be less glaring with some minor adjustments. How do so many obviously untalented people get on TV in the first place? Is it possible some fans are able to “pad” the votes? How does the audience influence the judges, and how do they influence each other? We will attempt to explore these questions, among others, through the specific formats of four popular reality shows that are centered on four different kinds of talent. We will examine the credibility and objectivity of the judges on each show, explain the effect of viewers or audience members on the eventual outcome, and examine what the code of ethics seems to be, if indeed there is one. We will then put forth specific ideas on how each show, and reality competitions in general, may be improved.
The most popular reality show right now is American Idol. American Idol is a hallmark television program with millions of followers. Idol was created by Simon Fuller, the Spice Girls Svengali, and first aired in England in 2001, as Pop Idol. It came to America the following year, with a new name but with the same purpose: to find market-friendly talent among an enormous pool of amateurs and wannabes (Frere-Jones, 2008, p.74). It has a simple dynamic plot that has captivated America for eight seasons. Every year judges that work for the show travel to different cities in the U.S. searching for talented singers. Long lines of hopeful young performers make their way through preliminary screenings anticipating their moment in front of the three famous judges: Simon Cowell, a successful, hit-making executive for BMG Records in Britain who created and helps produce the series, Paula Abdul, a popular singer and choreographer, and Randy Jackson, a veteran musician (Duffy,2002).
Reality competitions are only as good as the judges who preside over them. The American Idol panel, the gold standard of the genre, proves that the right combination of critiques can add professional insight, comic relief or a verbal jab (much to the delight of the audience) (Kinon,2008, p.1). Each judge has a distinct personality and role on the series. Simon is usually the most critical and direct. His opinion is however the most valued because of his experience in the music industry. Simon is paid to deliver his criticism in a nasty way, although he's usually right. "He's just being honest, saying it in blunt fashion. It's just constructive criticism," said Justin Guarini, a personable Pennsylvanian who was among the favorites to win it all (Duffy, 2002). And then there's Paula -- if she could find it in herself to do a taping sober, she might give some good feedback. John Rich of Nashville Star thinks she's downright disrespectful to contestants with how nonsensical her commentary is (Sample, 2008, p.3).
These performances in front of Simon, Paula, and Randy are called the preliminaries, though the contestants have already been seen by another professional panel to eliminate those that are obviously not qualified- or so you might think. The reality is that these first acts from all over the country can be some of the most entertaining, although sometimes at the singer’s expense. In these episodes of American Idol the judges will send a few singers they think have a shot at winning to a second round in Hollywood. These are also the episodes that showcase a variety of obviously bad auditions. The judges, though honest, can be cruel. This of course is entertaining and is usually a crowd pleaser.
"I think this kind of competition, going in there live, singing a cappella, is as brutal as it can get," says Abdul (Duffy,2002). Although each contestant agrees to the terms and condition of auditioning for the show, it might seem mean spirited to show these obviously bad auditions for amusement and public scrutiny. Some of the contestants who might even be mentally ill or psychologically challenged are ridiculed by the judges and their performances are aired on primetime television. Does this aspect of the contest distract from the real goal of helping an amateur singer rise to the top and become a success?
"The original idea was to do a show that shows what the music business is really like-illogical, sexist, all the things," stated Cowell (Duffy, 2002). The contest's intentions may be pure but judges can be brutal, especially in the preliminaries. In one instance, the usually kinder and more sympathetic Paula and Randy were unusually rude.
“If you were looking for insensitive behavior, Randy and Paula were your go-to judges. The two of them breaking into hysterical laughter as 22-year-old James Lewis sang "Go Down Moses, Let My People Go," was the cruelest moment of the night. They might be forgiven for not having the back story, but the producers made sure to let the viewers in on the fact that the Philadelphia tour guide had been encouraged by his co-workers to audition, obviously some sort of cruel joke on their part, which the producers were happy to help with” (Kerwin,2008, p.30).
Though it may seem the judges have the final word in the preliminaries by the next phase of the contest it’s not just the judges who affect the outcome. Except for the early stages of the competition, when the judges winnow a group of about two hundred down to twenty-four, they can only file amicus briefs. They can say, "It was just O.K. for me, dog," banish singers to cruise ships, and make everyone cry, but the people have the power (Frere-Jones, 2008, p.74).
The judges critique contestants on their vocal ability, song choice, presentation, and other aspects of pop craftsmanship. The American public, though, decides who remains in the running, by phoning and texting in votes after Tuesday night's broadcast (Frere-Jones, 2008, 75). This is an exciting opportunity for the American people to get involved. They feel that their vote might be the deciding facture of who stays on the show and competes until the end or who goes home. American Idol does "an immense good in getting younger people interested in singing." Finkle (2006, p.18) notes that "competition, as we know makes you get better.” Each week contestants are cut based on the popular vote received from text messages sent into the network from the masses. But text messaging voting, though it involves the viewers, has its disadvantages. There is no limit on how many times a viewer can vote in. While interviewing coworkers at my job I found that many of those who voted texted in dozens of times. Therefore the outcome may be a little skewed.
According to Frere-Jones (2008, p.75), seventy-four million votes were cast in the finale of the 2007 season. The problem with the voting may not just be the amount of times one can repeatedly vote, but the lack of experience the general public has with actual musical talent. Simon Cowell’s critiques, though harsh at times, represent real value.
The viewers need to compete only with Simon; Jackson and Abdul both give us plenty of opportunities to feel superior. The self-flummoxing Abdul is physically incapable of not reassuring the contestants. One of the few variables that Jackson seems able to track is pitch (Frere-Jones, 2008, p.75). Even if the professional judges' opinions might be off at times, surely the general public is even less qualified to judge the real art of singing. Finkle (2006, p.18) wrote, "I don't think that the most important factors are being addressed by the judges more than half the time. You're dealing with a range of watchers who [include] musicians and record producers who know what is marketable. According to Finkle (2006, p.13), there are people who vote for contestants because they're cute. Undoubtedly the winner in the grand finale of the show will become an American idol. A show as big as American Idol, is open for all types of people who want to take advantage of it (Keveney, 2006, p.40). Does this contest undermine the real talent that exists in America? Just because it’s popular doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most valuable. What the judges say about the contestants does not always sway the voters, although Cowell - the only judge who is able to dependably articulate why he thinks certain performances do or don't work - probably affects some (Frere-Jones, 2008, p.75). Hopefully America will realize that to really find the best of the best a popular television show, though it may have many fans, should not be considered the greatest resource for finding America's most talented singers.
In addition to people pets are also expected to hold their own in the world of reality television. Each episode of Pet Star has a talented group of animals and their owners who show off their special talent competing against one another. The winner of the show for that day will receive $2,500 and return at the end of the season and compete for $25,000 in cash and prizes with the other finalist from that season (“Mario Lopez,” 2008, p.1). Any type of animal can participate in the show as there is anything from lizards and ponies to the average dog competing. To showcase your animal’s talent, all you need to do is call or e-mail the producers and they will send you a form to fill out about the talent that will be shown and what type of animal you have. There are also questions not just about your pet's personality but also your personality. According to Borgenicht (2004, p.10), in his book, “Reality TV Handbook,” if you would like to pass the prescreening you need to make your personality more interesting then it really is.
The host of the show Pet Star is Mario Lopez. Mario has been a celebrity star since 1985 in an ABC comedy series (“Mario Lopez,” 2008, p.1). It is unknown if he owns any animals, but he seems to love each animal that comes on stage with him. Mario makes a wonderful host as he is able to get along well with the animals and the panel of judges (C. Cole, personal communication, July 7, 2008).
The panel of judges is made up of celebrities. The judges will stay for that season then next season there will be new celebrities judging the contestants. Some judges are Ben Stein, Susan Yezzi, Billy West, Brad Pitt, Melissa Pertman, and Brett Butler to name a few (“Animal Planet’s,” 2008, p.1). For each show there are always three judges on the panel. The main things the judges have in common are that they are well known celebrities that are either annoying or funny (C. Cole, personal communication, July 7, 2008). The article “Favorite Reality Television Judges” by Andy Dehnart (2008, p.3) states, “Judges on reality shows need to be knowledgeable, articulate and entertaining, or some combination of those.” Dehnart’s point is that you don’t need to be an animal trainer or have an educated knowledge of animals to be a judge deciding America’s talented animals but you need to be funny and well known.
The judges vote after each animal has preformed their talent on stage giving them points from 1-10, 10 being the best (“Mario Lopez,” 2008, p.1). The judges are to write in their score before they begin to share what they thought of the animal that just preformed. Their comments are not as rude as other reality shows, but uplifting. As the judges may not be educated about the animal that is performing, the judges may not be as awed by a pet that is not incredible. If you really knew the animal and the behaviors of that animal you would find it either normal or simply amazing. An example of this is from the episode on July 7, 2008; the first contestant, a border collie jumped for Frisbees as the owner threw them while the second, a potbellied pig, went through an army obstacle course. The judges gave the Border collie one 9 and two 10s, while they gave the pig two 8s and one 9 (Ross, 2004). Both performances were well done with little mistakes. To me this was unfair judging. If you knew about the two animals you would know that Border Collies learn very fast and are very smart while potbellied pigs are stubborn and hard to train. The correct way to judge this show is to have judges that actually know about different animals and have studied their personalities.
The code of ethics that is illustrated in Pet Star shows professional conduct. As the backstage and the true prescreening of the show are not shown, there is no way to find out if there is unprofessional conduct or unfair prescreening. In most reality competition shows the judges meet the contestants before they are brought on the show, this can be unfair and cause discrimination or prejudging. A change that should be made in Pet Star is to have educated judges that know animals and their natural behaviors. With this change in the show there will be fairness in judging and the right “pet star” will be found.
While the comments on reality shows are often amusing, one show’s purpose is to find the funniest person in America. Last Comic Standing is a reality show in which stand-up comedians compete for the favor of NBC producers, celebrity talent scouts, and of course, audience members. If they succeed in this endeavor, as of the sixth season, they win, “a $250,000 grand prize including an exclusive talent deal with NBC, a brand new Honda, and a starring appearance in Jubilee! at Bally's Las Vegas.” (“Information About Last”, 2008, p.1). Comedians that attend auditions, are given a chance to perform in live showcases, and are narrowed down to only the best. Then they are voted on by the audience.
The show is hosted by Bill Bellamy, who is a comedian. Bellamy has hosted Def Comedy Jam and received an NAACP Image Award. The show also boasts “special correspondents” Fearne Cotton, ANT, and past winner Debra DiGiovanni (“Information About Last”, 2008, p.1).
The participants on the show are diverse. Anyone who thinks they are funny finds their way to the auditions. Many of the contestants who are successful have been doing stand-up for a while, but their styles differ widely. The most recent season started off with the expected satire on everyday life that stand-up generally consists of, as well as a man who impersonates dinosaurs and mosquitoes and one totes his rather large bass fiddle onstage (Hurwitz, 2008). Auditions are open, and it is up to the many celebrity talent scouts to decide who will go to the next round. The scouts don’t always agree about who is funny, but if one sees potential s/he can usually convince his/her fellow judges to give the contestant a chance. The producers are pretty good about which auditions make it into actual air-time: bad comedians are only shown to give the scouts an opportunity to explain what they are looking for or an interesting aspect of the show, such as when a comedian refuses to be rejected, as shown on a recent episode. However, this is not always the case. In one episode, we see a shirtless man in clown make-up make one bizarre statement before the scouts command him to leave. It is likely that the producers show this audition to highlight all the strange diversity of comedy, but it seems just as likely that they had another thirty seconds of air-time to fill (Hurwitz, 2008).
The talent scouts consist of several comedians and comedic actors. While many viewers would agree that these people are funny, and they have obviously found success, one may ask why they are any more qualified to know what’s funny than anyone else. Just because an actor can deliver someone else’s lines well, we give them the credit for being funny but, what about the writer? After all, stand-up comedians have to write their own material as well. Perhaps this is the reason that nearly all of the show’s talent scouts have experience in stand-up, improvisational comedy, or writing. All have been trained in the art of comedy, yet comedy is still highly subjective. After all, what makes someone laugh? Connie Weiss (2008, p.1) quotes Susanne Langer as saying that this is the wrong question-that humor is only one of the “causes of laughter.” Weiss points out that laughter can come from relief or surprise. We may find some things funny that one close to the situation would not, our detachment provides the humor. In contrast, we may find a dark or satirical joke amusing precisely because we can relate to the situation. Weiss observes that comedy often surrounds tragedy, perhaps as a way of dealing with it. This is valid, as satire or “spoofs” have become increasingly popular, and directors like Mel Brooks have based their career on them (T. Dirks, 1996, p.1). It is also what stand-up tends to be about-experiences are embellished or under exaggerated in order to see humor in them. A qualified judge would be one who understands what makes other people laugh and why. The scouts and judges are aware of these techniques, and they have honed their own comedic ability, but they are not free from bias.
While there is no popular vote in Last Comic Standing until the final round, placing more emphasis on professional opinion than many shows, although, viewers still have influence. Comedians perform in showcases, in which judges and the general population are able to see their talent. This is an important part of the process, comedian Tony Jaeger states that “Ultimately, the number of people in your audience that are laughing is the key to comedic greatness” (Jaeger, personal communication, July 7, 2008). It is important to test the hopeful comedian out on an audience. This however, definitely influences a judge’s opinion. Laughter is infectious and a judge may suddenly see a comedian as much funnier (or less amusing) in front of an audience. This also has subtle influences on the viewer who looks forward to voting. The cameramen focus on those members of the audience who seem to be having the most fun, presenting an infectious mood to the viewers as well. There is something to be said for a live connection as well. Comedy is much funnier in person, and it’s much funnier in the front row than in the back. Judge Lonny Ross stated that comedy doesn’t always translate, and though he was referring to cultural differences, it could apply to live versus filmed comedy as well.
Compared to some reality shows, Last Comic Standing runs fairly professionally. However, to limit the judge/audience influence on each other, it might be helpful to split the sections of the show. For example, the talent scouts could choose their favorite comedians from the audition. Those comedians could then perform in a showcase for an audience who votes once for their favorite-this audience would not include the judges. This would consist of the first elimination, and the show would proceed with similar guidelines until a winner is chosen. This would respect the importance of the live audience, check the people’s influences on the judges, and still allow the professional influence to be paramount.
In addition to singing, pets, and comedy, dance as become a popular subject for reality shows. America’s Best Dance Crew is a TV show broadcasted through MTV where dance groups known as “street crews” compete for money and prizes. Randy Jackson, a very successful Grammy Award-winning producer who is also a judge in the aforementioned American Idol, created the show. America’s Best Dance Crew is hosted by Mario Lopez (previously Pet Star’s host), and he hosts quite well. He does however, get overexcited sometimes and starts to demonstrate certain empathy for some of the contestants, usually when they do something totally out of the box and Mario shows his emotion in an exaggerated way.
As I previously mentioned the participants here are called “street crews”, though many of them really aren’t; most of them look pretty preppy or at least they are middle class. They might even go to dancing academies. It’s very strange how the judges refer to them as if they came from the streets even if they are not. It looks absolutely fake how some of the judges would tell them that they know what it is like to come from the streets and how difficult it is to overcome, that is annoying, even though some of the contestants really do come from the streets and most have been dancing in the streets for a long time. Only two or three groups at the most out of the twelve that compete are from the streets (Kubicek, 2007, p.1). These contestants are usually the ones that have the best qualities and do the best performances. Mario Lopez needs to remember that he is the host and he has to show partiality and not favoritism to the street dancers. The main purpose of the show is to make streets dancers famous, and when they bring people that have been going to academies or schools to the show kind of contradicts the purpose of the show (Ominous, 2007, p. 3).
The jury consist of three judges; JC Chasez, Lil Mama and Shane Sparks. JC Chasez used to be one of the members of NSYNC. Lil Mama is a former rapper-singer. Last but not least, Shane Sparks is the only professional dancer of the jury. Here is where the biggest problem is, the jury (Cudworth, 2008, p.2). Not including Shane Sparks, who is the only judge that makes good observations to the contestants’ performances and provides them with a constructive critique, JC Chasez and Lil Mama are very questionable participants on the show. Lil Mama is the main problem because of her poor critiques. There is lack of constructive comments, and the way she expresses herself makes her very hard to understand. Besides she isn’t really a dancer, she is a singer, so we could say that her experience is not relevant. Then we have JC Chasez, who has been out of the scene for almost six years. After NSYNC tore apart he tried to start a solo career, which turned out to be a big failure (Cudworth, 2008, p.2). He gained a lot of experience dancing with his group and he probably learned some basics, but let’s face it, he was just a pretty face.
The voting system is very simple, call as many times that is necessary for your favorite crew. I personally don’t vote for the contestants, but there is some sense of coherency of who is going home and who is staying in the program. We could say that there is some fairness in that part. There have only been two seasons so far, and none of the judges have changed their decisions nor have any argued the reason why certain crews have gone home. There has never been any intimate interaction between contestants and the people in charge of the show (judges, hosts, producers, executives, etc.) so that speaks volumes about the ethics of the program (Kurtz, 2007, p. 69).
In conclusion, to have absolute fairness in the show Mario Lopez would have to stop showing his favoritism. It is not necessary to kick him out, if he would just improve in that he would become a better host. Two of the judges definitely would have to be replaced for others more capable and with more experience, of the same caliber of Shane Sparks to be more specific. This way all spectators would enjoy a more fair TV show and would with no doubt keep watching it (Hill, 2005 p. 47).
As we have made evident, with the creation of a code of ethics and small changes in the voting and prescreening processes, as well as choosing highly qualified judges, reality competitions could be about real talent. These changes will result in better conditions (and chances) for the contestants, more respected judges, and an even more enjoyable experience for the viewers.
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