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Winners and Losers in America: An Observation, A Question, A Hypothesis

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As a kid growing up in the 1950s, I saw a lot of game shows of different kinds. As an adult in this first decade of the 21st century, I watch much less television, but I still keep an eye open for what's going on in that part of the culture.

And I believe I've observed an interesting change in the nature of the game shows.

The shows in the middle of the 20th century, it seems to me, were structured to be celebrations of the person who WON the contest. There were other contestants, but the also-rans were not the focus of the drama. The dramatic moment consisted of one winner emerging from a larger group of aspirants.

Today, the shows are about the LOSERS.

Consider these three shows, all of which have struck a deep nerve in the American TV-watching public, even to the point of becoming major cultural phenomena: SURVIVOR, the hit show in which in each session one of the contestants is booted off the island, while the others survive until the next show when, again, one person will lose while the others "survive"; THE APPRENTICE, that program that made famous the phrase "You're fired!" --delivered in the accents and bullying intonations of Donald Trump, the show's host and the embodiment of power; and AMERICAN IDOL, where --again-- all the talk between shows (even on Olbermann's COUNTDOWN) is about which contestant will be the next to be rejected.

I am inclined to believe that these particular programs are representative of their time in America, and that the contrast between old and new forms of game shows marks an important shift of some kind.


In terms of dramatic structure, a switch from a celebrating of the crowning of a winner to a witnessing of the angel of death descending upon a loser is a profound transformation.

In terms of what I believe I know about the workings of culture, such a transformation in the realm of some prominent part of the popular culture –like TV game shows– is likely to be a manifestation of something important going on in the overall cultural system. Everything is connected to everything else. Patterns in cultural expression reflect patterns in the nature of human experience within that culture.

Hence the question arises: what does this shift in the structure of the game shows signify about what's going on in America more generally?

I raise the question because I really don't KNOW the answer. So I hope people will propose possible answers to that question, if they think they may have some insight.

If you believe the observation a valid one, and if you believe the question a meaningful one about which you might be able to come up with something worth saying, I suggest you stop reading here and read my hypothesis only after you've pursued your own line of thought.

Below I will put forward here some thoughts about what MIGHT be part of what this game-show shift might reflect from the larger culture.

My guess is that the root of the change in the game shows is the sharp decline in SOCIAL MOBILITY in American society.

I don't have the statistics at hand, but I believe that studies have shown that in the half century since the 1950s, the chances that average Americans have to movie, say, from lower or working class status to middle/upper or professional class status have greatly diminished. America no longer offers more upward social mobility than various European societies.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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