Why Bush and Co. Play Little Brother to 'Survivor'

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Television is its own peculiar form of electronic democracy. And because its revenue stream depends on attracting Americans' support — unlike politicians, whose funding is more dependent on delivering donor-friendly legislation — it's even more responsive to the popular will than either the GOP or the Democrats. Therein lies the reason why this week's network prime-time programming schedule gives no hint, before Thursday (and George W.'s Big Speech), that the party currently tipped to win the presidential election will nominate its candidate this week. It's been bumped not just by such obvious candidates as "Survivor" and "Big Brother," but even by football and reruns of "Third Rock From the Sun." And with good reason: The viewing public has long ago voted with its remotes to nix prime-time convention coverage.

And it's easy to see why, when you look at what they are watching: "Survivor" and other examples of so-called "reality TV." Americans want to watch real people in real situations (or at least ones that allow them to suspend their disbelief), finding their way without a script to solutions that are never entirely predictable. Compare that with the cheesy four-day infomercials put on by two parties doing their best to look just like each other — just what is the difference between a "Compassionate Conservative" and a "New Democrat," anyway? — and it's obvious why only C-SPAN junkies are settling in for the duration.

On "Survivor," contestants must engage in alliances and pacts, canvass support, lobby and horse-trade. Corny as its Trader Vic's-meets-"Lord of the Flies" aesthetic may be, the Tribal Council shows "delegates" forced to weigh which individuals are most indispensable to their "party" before casting their votes in a ballot whose outcome can, at the last moment, defy all predictions. In other words, "Survivor" represents real, unscripted politics, whose Darwinian ethic shows humans at their best and worst.

At the conventions, by contrast, you'll see a micro-managed pageant that plumbs the depths of banality in search of narrative elements that camouflage two ambitious sons of America's power elite as salt-of-the-earth common folk. The ritual of the convention is designed to "show" the candidate winning the considered endorsement of the party faithful, but it's been so stripped of any space for real political cut and thrust that it's a little like watching "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" with contestants reading the answers off a visible TelePrompTer. There's about as much drama here as in the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree-lighting ceremony (I mean, imagine if those balloons don't all drop just as the nominee finishes his speech...). As TV, conventions make "Little House on the Prairie" look like "Melrose Place." And if Americans aren't going to watch, the logic of TV "democracy" holds that the networks won't show them.

The irony is that as, over the past eight years, political conventions have been transformed entirely into made-for-TV spectacles, their prime-time coverage has actually declined. That's simply because the image-makers have systematically weeded out everything that might make them interesting as TV. Perhaps the conventions' best hope for clawing their way back to prime time may occur outside the halls — at the shadow events and street protests planned by elements ranging from major-party mavericks to Starbucks-trashing anarchists. At least those have the not-quite-scripted frisson of reality TV.