Reality TV and Legitimation Crisis

I was just ready to post some breezy suggestion that we might read the obsession with voting on reality TV shows as symptomatic of a deeper legitimation crisis when Allessandra Stanley beats me to the punch (sort of) and Michael Newman in turn denounces such a claim as a "baggy zeitgeist reading".

I won't argue too much with Michael's judgment; methodologically, the claims underlying ideological, discursive, and symptomatic reading could use a lot more shoring up in their mobilization of evidence. But since I, like many, was trained in doing such ideological readings, I'd at least like to suggest there might be a smarter version of Stanley's contention that voting rights concerns lead to the popularity of American Idol. Namely, we might see the causation question to be secondary and to connect the widespread proliferation of "voting" as a symptom of a political culture in which the importance, efficacy, and significance of voting faces widespread and high-profile suspicion. (c.f. the "they're all bastards" tone of Joe Klein's editorials in Time.) At the very least, this reading does allow for the "large number of Idol voters who don't feel guilty about 2000 because they were too young to vote or because they never vote and don't care." That very lack of caring - more than liberal-left anger over the Electoral college or voting rights shenanigans - strikes me as a far more likely and prominent component of the political substratum of these shows.

Beyond that I have a question for a field I pay far little attention to these days: how common in television studies are ideological readings of American television programming these days? How common do these ideological readings deal with nonfiction program and precise issues of legitimation? When I watch Katie Couric's "What's Right with America," I pine for some good ol' Glasgow Media Group-style analysis. The good work at In Media Res points that direction, but I'm not sure it's doing exactly the same thing.


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