How Reality TV Took Over U.S. Politics

Article/Op-Ed in Time
March 23, 2016

Jay Newton-Small wrote for TIME about the convergence of politics and reality television:

Lights! Camera! Booming television announcer: 17 candidates. Eight former or current governors. Five current or former senators. Two former or current CEOs, and a neurosurgeon. They’re all competing for one job and you, the voter, get to pick. Tune in tonight to see who got voted off the island.

Do the 2016 presidential elections feel like a reality television show to anyone else? Perhaps it’s because the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is a former reality star of his own hit show, The Apprentice, whose second ex-wife Marla Maples just landed a coveted spot onDancing With the Stars.

Or perhaps it’s because the contest seems to have moved from television advertisements into the news shows themselves. Trump has spent just $10 million on televisions ads, but he has benefitted from an estimated $1.9 billion in free media coverage,according to mediaQuant, a firm that tracks media spending. By comparison, the same study showed Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who has spent $27.9 million in paid ads, benefitted from $764 million in free media attention.

Trump has spelled ratings gold for Fox News Channel and CNN, and to a lesser degree MSNBC. As the primaries heated up in 2015, Fox saw its crucial ages 25-43 demographic rise 13 percent and that number spiked in January by 43 percent to more than two million viewers. In 2015, by contrast, CNN gained 30 percent and MSNBC was down 18 percent in the same demographic, though in January MSNBC saw a rise of 20 percent in that demographic. Overall, CNN’s primetime ratings are up 170 percent in the past year and Fox’s 40 percent.