Arts, Media, and Entertainment

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Andy Warhol famously remarked that everybody gets fifteen minutes of fame. But he may not have realized just how far some people would be willing to go for their fifteen minutes. I doubt it ever occurred to Warhol that people would one day line up for the chance to be humiliated in front of millions of eager television viewers. I could be describing any number of television shows, but I'm thinking of two in particular: Fox's American Idol, now in its third season, and NBC's new show, The Apprentice. It's pretty clear that most people aren't watching these hit reality shows just to find out which singer will score a recording contract, or which lucky entrepreneur will get to work for Donald Trump. They're watching mainly to see who's going to blow his or her big chance and how brutal the judges are going to be. These are the parts of the shows that get all the hype. On American Idol, the highlight is the insults fired by judge Simon Cowell at the would-be superstars. No believer in letting people down gently, Cowell prefers to use terms like "ghastly," "horrendous," and "the worst singer in America." But there are plenty of minor highlights, as the camera follows the contestants behind the scenes and records their bickering and backbiting, or catches them standing onstage and insulting Cowell right back. Similarly, The Apprentice is structured so that the climax of each episode is the moment when Donald Trump looks a squirming contestant in the eye and announces, "You're fired." But not before we've seen an hour of the contestants' complaining and gossiping about each other, as well as openly denouncing their fellow contestants to Trump. And I haven't even yet mentioned the sleazy methods some of the contestants have used to get ahead, as when the women's team dressed as provocatively as possible to lure customers into the restaurant they were advertising. In short, neither of these shows nor the other shows like them was designed to appeal to our better natures. Now, I'm not saying competition or having a winner is a bad thing. But on shows like American Idol and The Apprentice, the point isn't just winning. If it were, the people who seem destined to humiliate themselves wouldn't make it on the shows in the first place; they'd be screened out in the auditions. The point is to get trampled on, browbeaten, and laughed at while trying to win, all for the viewing pleasure of people like you and me. Thanks, but no thanks. Even if these people don't mind being exploited, that doesn't mean we need to participate in the process. When we cheer for their degradation, we may not be hurting them personally. But what does it do to us? I think it erodes our respect for human dignity and our ability to be considerate of others' feelings. I think we're the ones who are degraded, just like the Roman citizens in the depths of the corruption of the Roman Empire used to cheer the gladiators, killing one another in the arena. Shows like this are why I've been urging BreakPoint listeners just to unplug the television. Sure, you can turn it on when you want to for news programs, but you have got to get down on your hands and knees -- it's a pretty good discipline. People can make fools of themselves, and they do often enough. But I don't have to watch it and call it entertainment. For further reading and information: Kirstin Downey and Amy Joyce, "Rating TV's 'Apprentice'" (panel discussion), Washington Post, 15 February 2004. "Hundreds Line Up to Star in 'Apprentice'," Washington Post, 15 March 2004. John Fischer, "Unreal Reality," BreakPoint Online, 23 May 2003.
  1. Budziszewski, "The Vixenette," Boundless, 23 January 2003.
Roberto Rivera, "That's Just Awful! Where Do I Sign Up?Boundless, 14 February 2001. Douglas C. Minson, "When the Public Is PRIVATE, Darn It All!BreakPoint Online, 2000. First in a series; see also parts two and three. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030213, "Reality or Something Like It." BreakPoint Commentary No. 030314, "Torture TV." BreakPoint Commentary No. 040210, "TV Unplugged." BreakPoint Commentary No. 020208, "Must-Close-Your-Eyes TV: The Chair and The Chamber." (Free registration required.) Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking Press, 1986). Thomas Hibbs, Shows about Nothing (Spence, 1999).


Chuck Colson


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