Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reality TV and Bocce Ball

A couple of things moved my brain today.  The first occurred while I was in the middle of my 3-mile power walk – hey, I’ve lost 14 pounds so far.  Anyway, while walking past our local neighborhood park I noticed something different.  Next to the tennis courts are two bocce ball courts.  In the seven plus years that I’ve lived here I’ve never seen anyone playing bocce ball and for that matter, I’ve only seen bocce ball being played in person once before in Grapevine, Texas by some great grandfatherly Italians.  Today I witnessed not only a few, but a whole club playing competitive bocce.   A couple of the players came over and told me they meet every Friday morning.  I was stunned.  I had always wondered why they had bocce ball courts at this park.  In my opinion it was similar to having a shuffle ball court or croquet field…who knew there were bocce ball aficionados around here.  Maybe I should take up bocce – is it the next big craze.

Well, I doubt that Mark Burnett is developing a TV show around bocce ball, but the other thing swirling around my head is reality television.  I was listening to an interview on Marketplace the other day where they were discussing advertising in this new fragmented audience era.   The expert compared the number of people watching network TV in 1971 with today and it is staggering that a hit show on an average night back then was more than all the combined TV broadcast networks today…on a very good night.  With the internet giving us so much freedom to watch whatever we want at anytime it’s no wonder that broadcasting and the advertising that supports it are in deep trouble.

That’s why network executives are going to reality TV more and more, and especially live competitive shows where people want to watch as it’s happening so they don’t accidentally find out results before they watch the show while viewing the web or be able to join the social media conversation, posting comments on social media during the live show – hence the new instant digital water cooler.  This means they are also more likely to view the commercials that run during the live telecast.

Myself, I’m not that big a fan of reality TV, but tend to choose competitive shows over any of the other genres.  I just don’t understand why anyone would care to watch the antics of housewives, teen moms, bearded duck hunters or especially superficial 20-somethings from New Jersey (I’m from Jersey myself so I know).   My favorite reality show is The Amazing Race, not only because I have a love for travel, geography and seeing people sleep in airports, but because I would really love to run the race myself. (I applied many years ago to go on with my mother-in-law) I think the show is popular because it’s one of the only reality shows where almost anyone can feel like they could be a contestant – not just a show for chefs, fashion designers, models, overweight folks or those who look good in a bathing suit while back stabbing and not bathing for weeks.  Almost anyone likes to be a tourist and see the world or at least Disneyland.  Dancing with The Stars also is popular for the same reason because a lot of people THINK they can ballroom dance or would like to learn or have fantasies of being Fred Astaire, only if they would get their ass off the couch.

The most prevalent reality show genre is the singing or talent competition and has been popular all the way back to when radio was king, with Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour and then later on TV with the Ed McMahon hosted Star Search and others.  But it took some Brits to modernize the genre and turn it into a ratings blockbuster – I speak of American Idol.  Now, I must admit that I’ve been watching portions of the show since it premiered as, what was once called, summer replacement programming.  It did fairly well that first season, but wasn’t a super smash hit like the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire that also premiered as a summer show.  It really took the rapid success of first season winner, Kelly Clarkson to make Idol a hit and then the success of Carrie Underwood several years later to add a boost to keeping it a ratings juggernaut.  I hope Simon Fuller, Ken Warwick and Nigel Lithgow, as well as Fox Television, are very nice to Ms. Clarkson, Ms. Underwood, as well as Oscar winning Jennifer Hudson for making the show so successful.  Audiences like success stories and watching young talent develop before their eyes.  I think that’s one reason season X winner Taylor Hicks never really hit it big because he was already who he wanted to be while on the show and never changed.  There was nothing to blossom. 

The Voice, another popular singing competition show, has yet to produce a legitimate mega star and so once the gimmick runs its course will probably fizzle out here in the next few seasons unless that changes.  Survivor has had its share of stars develop from the show including host Jeff Probst who has his own talk show and Elizabeth Hasselbeck who was a contestant and now a long-time host of The View on daytime TV.   Another reason why I like the Amazing Race is that though they’ve had memorable teams, including some couples from other reality shows, there are no big names coming from the show.  Even host Phil Keoghan is so unassuming and down to Earth that I doubt he’ll ever be on TMZ punching out a photog or being the subject of a true Hollywood story.

Back to Idol – this season has really pointed out the decline of the show and without any more big stars born from it these last few years I don’t see it lasting too much longer.  This year’s new judges just don’t have the chemistry of the originals and there has yet to be a real replacement for Simon Cowell, who left to start his own show The X Factor that hasn’t been the big thing he promised and ranks below the The Voice in ratings.  Without the show producing a mega star it won’t last too long, either.   The top 10 contestants on Idol this season are fairly bland and though decent singers don’t seem to have whatever it is that makes people follow them religiously and buy their music on iTunes.  The same could be said from last year’s crop, as well.  For even though the show needs a Clarkson and Underwood to keep the momentum going, the second tier stars help as well.  The Clay Aikens, the Daughtrys, the Kelli Picklers, the Fantasias and others are popular entertainers with successful careers who also came out of the Idol machine and are somewhat household names. 

I’ll watch American Idol the rest of the season.  I’ll pick out a few contestants to root for and hope will become successful, even if they don’t win.   But it’s becoming harder each season without some pieces of coal that we can watch turn into diamonds.  We need a Clay Aiken transformation or the wonder of seeing Carrie Underwood’s almost certain anointment to Queen of Country even as a no-nothing girl from small town Oklahoma.  Maybe it’ll happen, there’s still time but if it doesn’t I look for another reality competition show to WOW me and grab my viewership.  Perhaps it’s American Bocce.  Hmmm…I need to call Mr. Burnett about this.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

College Admission Should Be Based On Merit Only

I was listening to OnPoint on NPR yesterday and the guest was Carolyn Chen, director in Asian American Studies at Northwestern University who proposed that Asian-American applicants are discriminated against at Ivy League schools.  She stated some statistics to make her point, including that Jews make up only 2% of the general population but 25% of Ivy League university student bodies while Asian-Americans constitute 5% of the U.S. population and about 18% of those same elite private schools.  Two things caught my interest – the fact that there were enough Jewish students to even make up that large percentage and two how is 18% that much different that 25% - they’re both a lot larger pools than their general population percentages.  The rest of the  hour-long discussion  was spent talking about admission policies at U.S. private universities, with other guests who were either admission officers or related to the topic in other ways with a variety of information about the process and callers with compelling questions.  The one question that I was most interested in was a mother of a mixed-raced daughter who was half white and half Asian and she wanted to know which race box her daughter should check that would give her the best chance of getting admitted to her choice school.  Two things struck me from her question.  One solidified my hatred of racial hyphens.  I just don’t like labels such as African-American or Asian-American, one because it makes no sense in a racial or cultural way because not all Africans are black, et al.  It’s a geographic distinction, not a race or cultural one.  A white kid born in South Africa should be considered African-American but I doubt that they would call themselves that here in the U.S.  The other issue is that our country became great based on us being basically mutts and not homogenous.  Of course, we have had problems getting along throughout our existence as a nation – some issues bigger than others, but it’s that notion that we are inheritably diverse that makes us different than most other countries in the world.

So why don’t we take that basic concept – that we are all mutts – and put everyone in one box.  I would love to see a major private university such as Harvard come out and say we will not consider race or any personal data in our first round of choosing applicants.  It would be sort of like the TV show The Voice where the first round contestants are judged solely on the quality of their voice in a blind selection.  I say delete all personal questions from college applications seen by admission officers.  Why should that woman caller’s daughter have to even worry about what box to check (that leads to a whole other topic dealing with why people of mixed race parents are always considered to be the race of the minority parent).  I believe all college applicants should be accepted by merit only – no race, geography, legacy, financial status, if parents are big donors or other such nonsense.  Accept kids based on the fundamental question: Will this candidate be successful at the school, graduate and contribute to society in a meaningful way?  From that pool then other criteria can be used but, again, it would have to be based on merit.  I say let the cards fall where they may and if you get a lot of kids with Asian backgrounds well then they deserve it because they studied harder or bring more to the table.

I say let all personal data be voluntary.  Let candidates decide what they want to use to help them give a leg up.  If they want to disclose they come from immigrant parents, then let it be on their terms.  A lot of information about a candidate can be had through application essays.  Just word questions in a way, such as: How has your background formulated your future aspirations?  It is up to the applicant to disclose personal information, such as race, body type, cultural background, etc.

Until a major private university changes its policies then the system will remain the same.  I understand that there are other reasons to why universities select the students that they do.  Major universities are businesses, even though they’re essentially non-profits.   They are not only in the business of educating.  They have large research institutions that need funding and rightly so and in such they must build their brand.  All brands to be successful must court not only new users but keep existing one’s happy.  For a university that means keeping alumni happy, which constitutes giving their kids preferential treatment.  It means propagating enthusiasm for the school through sports because successful teams bring in big TV dollars.  That’s why legacies are so important because they keep a university in the hearts and minds of families.  My brother-in-law and his wife both went to the University of Mississippi.  They continue to follow their football team and even return to the school several times a season to attend games.  Their house is full of Ole Miss memorabilia and they would really encourage their children to attend their alma mater, even if another school would be better.  I guess it’s an inclusion thing – people like to be feel part of a group of like-minded people and I understand that but at the application level – I think even that white middle class kid, who may be top of his class from an average high school in a middle American city, should be able to apply to Harvard or Princeton or Brown without feeling like he or she could never get in because they’re not black, Asian, Hispanic or a farm kid from the middle of Kansas.   

I really think if you could sweep a giant hand across any high school in America and grab whatever group of kids was walking across campus and send them to a top private college that you’d get the same success rate than from the current application process.   Let’s not worry about what color their skin is or if they’re poor or rich or from Montana or fat or skinny or red haired or in a wheel chair.  If they’re passionate about learning, helping the world, have proven study skills, top GPA and willing to take on challenges then accept them and help them become great human beings.  They need all the help they can get.