Spring 2012 Contact Us

Selecting the next President – Reality game show style


Annenberg’s Diana Mutz, Ph.D., the Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Communication and Political Science, sees the television show “American Idol” as a substantial improvement over the current presidential primary process. In fact, she suggests that the American presidential primary process would benefit from just such a program.

“The program – call it ‘Our American President’ -- would invite all candidates to appear on a nationally televised program that provides free airtime on a weekly basis,” she explains. “Instead of a weekly musical genre such as Queen or Michael Jackson songs, each week would feature a policy theme – healthcare perhaps, or maybe immigration policy another week-- and viewers would tune in to see what each candidate did with his or her airtime. The candidates would be free to use the airtime however they wish so long as it involves the topic at hand. They could be as formal, serious or lighthearted as they choose. When the field of candidates is large, the time per candidate will be short, but the person with the fewest call-in votes each week would no longer receive airtime in subsequent weeks.


Most political radio and television is a cacophony of shout fests among analysts (above) and politicians (below).



It may sound frivolous at first, but Prof. Mutz points out the that problem with debate audiences as well as political television audiences more generally nowadays is that they are primarily political junkies. In order to draw large, broad-based audiences of people who are not already strong partisans for a particular candidate, Prof. Mutz says the process requires more than dry political exchanges to excite and entertain people. Political “shout fests” that populate broadcast and cable television try to use incivility as an attention-grabber, “but then the public comes away with the impression that politicians are a pretty savage bunch. That’s not good either.”

So what besides incivility can be used as an attention-grabber? The answer may be competition.“Any competition is an attention-grabber. We watch sports events to see who wins and who loses even when our own team isn’t playing, and likewise people watch American Idol because they want to see who gets eliminated each week. Our American President could have a similar tension that would make it exciting and unpredictable. Voting each week would make viewers feel directly involved in the process, and the audience would be more than the political hardcore, so it might help parties select more broadly electable candidates as well. Although the voting would not be binding, the prize—more free airtime—is of real value to candidates.”

And the judges? “Definitely not journalists or political experts, but we’d need a balanced group to provide lively commentary after each performance, though just as in American Idol, the judges’ opinions would not define the winner. Is it hoopla? You bet. But many Americans need to be convinced that politics is exciting and interesting so it can become more than a spectator sport.”

Stay tuned!

Send a comment to ASC:


return to NewsLink main page