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How Reality TV Turns Debates Into 'White House Idol'

Vice President Biden and Republican Paul Ryan at Thursday night's debate.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
Vice President Biden and Republican Paul Ryan at Thursday night's debate.

The first two debates of the 2012 election cycle have had stratospheric viewership on TV. Critic Bob Mondello isn't surprised. He argues we've spent the last decade training the public to watch contests on television and then vote — think American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

During the debates, networks all but beg us to kibitz in social media, which makes instant judgment universal. We're encouraged to watch for the purpose of reacting.

And the stories we like best? Underdogs triumphing, last minute comeback, a real horserace. Blowouts are less fun to watch than games that go into extra innings, which is why American Idol doesn't give out weekly vote totals. The show is manipulated to make things seem close because no one would watch week after week if the outcome weren't in doubt. In political races, the media are often accused of doing something similar, hyping polls that suggest a tightening contest.

So, no wonder we react in a big way after a televised debate, declaring winners and losers, swinging polls three or four points. We've been conditioned. But the things reality shows have conditioned us to look for — polish, brashness, engagement with the camera — are all surface, not things that have much to do with governing.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.