Entertainment Television as an Agent for Political Change
PROBLEM STATEMENT — Reality television — and entertainment media in general — can be more than sensationalist. Entertainment media can cultivate constructive socio-political change. Reality TV, in particular, can give youth, women and minority groups a voice, involve them in community work and politics, promote their leadership skills, and assist them in achieving socio-political change.
This case study examines a TV program that aired in Lebanon and helped discover new political leadership for the country’s parliament — using the reality TV format to question the possible candidates, test their competencies and evaluate their qualifications.
CASE STUDY — In 2013, a first-of-its-kind political reality show appeared on Lebanon’s “Al Jadeed TV” channel. Its intent? To select a candidate to run for parliament from 15 young contestants.
The program, Al Zaïm (The Leader), endorsed by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, followed a dozen contestants as they competed in a series of ten politically-themed challenges. Al Jadeed TV’s prize for the winner of the show included coverage of the candidate’s campaign expenses.
The show, which aired five times a week, featured the candidates’ political commentary on breaking news stories. Once a week, the show included celebrity performances as a lead-in to the voting results and an evaluation of the remaining candidates by an on-air jury.
As Lebanese across the political party spectrum watched the episodes, the contestants faced weekly vivid challenges: to provide a sustainable public service within a selected area, to reconcile two conflicting groups, to innovatively promote a selected social cause, to organize and lead a public protest demanding a civil right, to practically support the Lebanese army, to assist a Lebanese deputy member in improving and legalizing a law directed at people’s welfare, and to investigate and expose cases of corruption.
The producers of the show explicitly intended to identify a new political leadership — and wanted to do so in a non-conventional entertaining way. By the end of the season, the process worked: both viewers and the program’s jury selected Maya Terro, a secular 27-year old American University of Beirut graduate, as the winner and “new leader.”
Commentators noted the irony of a young secular woman winning the title of “leader” in a sectarian and sexist country, on a reality show whose logo depicted a man wearing a suit. Yet her victory helped to call into question the stereotype of what a “leader” looks like — and the ratings success of the show proved that an entertainment TV genre can deliver more than meaningless sensationalism. In fact, this was a case where Reality TV’s entertaining appeal was employed in the service of empowering youth.
“It seems that entertainment is what most excites us and what we value above everything else.” –Carroll O’Connor, American actor, producer and director
The Leader demonstrated that a marriage can exist between media entertainment and socio-political change. From a consumer perspective, actor Carroll O’Connor’s quote reflects how vital and appealing media entertainment has always been to users. The profound influence that entertainment media has over its consumers can explain its popularity and rapid diffusion, for according to researchers, the positive feeling of enjoyment yielded through the consumption of media entertainment has numerous cognitive, affective and behavioral dimensions (Vorderer, Klimmt, & Ritterfeld, 2004, p. 389).
Although media entertainment’s appeal exceeds its educational roles, rapid technological advances have made the convergence of entertainment and education a significant possibility (Brown, 1993). Education programming targeted to children has grown worldwide and examples of entertainment programs that serve to empower youth, women and minority groups or cultivate socio-political change also exist. For instance, according to Hight (2001), reality TV programs can effectively contribute to promoting socio-political change in modern societies, and instructive reality TV can creatively motivate viewers by drawing their attention to specific social causes, but in an entertaining manner (Lee, 2008). Reality TV can also spark fruitful dialogue among audience members (Papa & Singhal, 2008, p.25)
Entertainment media can thus make a community message more socially desirable and can make it easier for that message to reach and influence an audience, by putting consumers in a “good mood.”
In the Middle East region, most programs directed towards youth only feature their opinions when the topics are about music and film — the opinions of youths are ignored them when the issues are critical and of a political nature (Karam, 2007, p. 87). Yet as the program, The Leader demonstrated, entertainment television — and entertainment media in general — can give youth and women a voice, involve them in community work and politics, promote their leadership skills, and assist them in achieving political and social change.
The Leader program was one example of how entertaining reality shows can cultivate political, social and cultural change. But can such constructive entertainment TV formats and reality TV trends be adopted in countries other than Lebanon and beyond the Middle East? Can a new culture of popular entertainment media emerge to empower youth, women and minority groups?