The Psychology of Entertainment: How American Idol, Survivor and Dallas Hooked Us

In this series of posts, I’ve covered off at some length why we find some things inherently funny. We’ve also talked about the importance of connecting with characters in developing a long term loyalty to the show that separates the long running hits from the one season wonders. But obviously, there is more than just comedy on TV. There’s drama, Reality TV and Action Thrillers, all dealing with the same basic elements of characterization and narrative (even Reality TV, which is really unscripted drama). With this, let’s look at how some different shows have approached the challenge of long term loyalty.

What Made Some Show Hits?


survivor logoSurvivor was the most successful summer replacement in history. It rocketed to popularity in 2000 and was responsible for the flood of reality TV we’re still saddled with. The popularity of Survivor, however, has dropped dramatically over the past few years. One possible reason is that Survivor forces you to reestablish connections every single season. The situation is more important than the characters in Survivor. Just as we start to care about a character, they get voted off the island. We watch Survivor like an anthropologist would, intrigued by the challenge and how the human cast reacts to it, but unable to form connections that endure from season to season. The producers realized this and started to bring back past favourites for an “All Star” survivor, hoping to re-establish past connections, but by then it was too late. Our interests had moved on. The connections had been discarded. Survivor had “jumped the shark.” Other reality shows, such as Big Brother and the Apprentice have faced this same inherent “shelf life” problem. In terms of gaining long term loyalty, characters we connect with will always trump intriguing situations, for reasons I explored a few posts back.

West Wing

WestwingMy personal favorite. But as I said in an earlier post, even my degree of connection with West Wing suffered after the third season. Writer Aaron Sorkin’s scripts demanded a high degree of investment on the part of the viewer. The byzantine tangle of situations, delivered through machine gun quick, impossibly clever dialogues, was more like intellectual gymnastics than a relaxing hour in front of the tube. Earlier this week, I talked about the psychological attraction of wit. We all wish we were wittier and the characters on West Wing, thanks to Sorkin, were impossibly clever and witty. It left you breathless just trying to keep up. However, Sorkin continually delivered huge returns on that investment. For me at least, West Wing hit highs I haven’t seen since. After four seasons, Sorkin moved on. Also, the inevitable cast churn started. Perhaps we were just worn out from trying to keep up, but in it’s last 3 seasons, West Wing continually lost steam.

Other long running dramas, including ER and Dallas (technically the most successful show in history, if you look at global syndication as a measure), relied on various formulas of social connectedness. ER wrapped in our preoccupation with health (another inherently wired hot button in humans) with rich characterizations. Dallas took the soap opera primetime, offering a shallower but undeniably fascinating tangle of greed, betrayal, sex, love and occasional redemption through the actions of more sympathetic characters. Dallas was like junk food for our brains, playing to our lowest psychological denominators. It’s a path many shows have followed.

American Idol

AmericanIdolSo, in the examples above, it appears we need an ongoing narrative to keep us engaged, right? Then how do I explain the success of American Idol? There is no narrative. And just like Survivor, the cast of characters changes each season. So why is American Idol the most popular TV show in recent memory? Well, it turns out that American Idol does rely on a narrative. It relies on our narrative.

If our connection with characters provides the glue that keeps us tuning in week after week, how would I explain the success of American Idol? While we might start identifying with one particular contestant, there is no real narrative that drives American Idol. It’s a talent show. And it’s not the only online success. America’s Got Talent, Dancing with the Stars, the Susan Boyle phenomenon. What is the mechanism at play here that entertains us? Again, it seems to come down to narrative, but in this case, it’s our narrative, not the characters, that proves to be the glue.

TV Provides a Reference Point for Ourselves

Our connectedness to characters seems to rely not so much on their situations, but on our own. Somewhere deep inside, we project their fantasy on our reality. The narrative of our favorite characters have to have some hooks or bearing points that we can anchor in on. There has to be some degree of affinity. We can relate to the situation (med students watching Grey’s Anatomy) or we can relate to a character’s qualities (I’d like to be Chandler Bing’s friend). We can fantasize about being in a character’s shoes (being Jack Bauer in 24) and we can care about a character’s well being (Will Schuester has to dump his wife and hook up with Emma Pillsbury). A TV show has to give us a reason to want to live our lives vicariously through it’s characters and situations. The formula for American Idol relies on the same hooks. We want to be on stage too. It’s the same hook that made Rock Band and Guitar Hero massive best sellers amongst video games.

What connection do we have with the contestants on these massively popular talent shows? Why are talent shows inherently appealing to us? Let’s return to Susan Boyle and Britain’s Got Talent. Why did we get a chill down our spine when this frumpy Scottish spinster suddenly opened her mouth and belted it out? Why was it so deliciously satisfying when the smirk was wiped from Simon Cowell’s face? Well, it’s because we humans travel in herds. Seriously.

Monkey See, Monkey Aspire to Do

Television Britain's Got TalentWe admired Susan Boyle. We admire talent when we see it. And we especially admire talent when it’s undiscovered. Why?

Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White have a theory about that. They believe admiration is like a short cut to success. And unlike other species, where social prestige comes primarily through physical aggression, humans can take many paths up the social ladder. The examples of humans achieving social status through talent or intellectual ability far outnumber those succeed through physical domination. Our brain is our greatest asset and human society has evolved to recognize our unique advantage.

When we see someone suddenly winning a crowd over, we can’t help but feel chills of admiration going down our spine. (Here’s a link to the video on YouTube, just in case you’ve forgotten the sensation. It’s been viewed almost 90 million times) Their success could be our success. They provide a new potential path in our own personal narrative, a road to prestige that we to could go down. And the appeal of the talent show format is that these are undiscovered talents. Their current social status is not so different from our own. In fact, as in Susan Boyle’s case, based on appearance alone, we initially put ourselves several rungs up the social ladder. So, if Susan could suddenly soar up in social value, our odds must be even better (ignoring for the moment that we can’t sing like her). We measure our chances against the yardstick provided by Ms. Boyle. We can readily imagine ourselves in her no-nonsense leather shoes. It’s why we are predisposed to root for the underdog. And the more “under” the dog, the bigger the cheers.

What is the Darwinian logic to this behavior? It’s not so difficult to understand. The path to social success, and all the evolutionary advantages that accrue to one who attains it, is easier if you follow in someone else’s footsteps. We are a social animal and one of the advantages of that is that we can advance faster if we learn from other’s failures and triumphs. We are hardwired to both admire, criticize and topple fallen idols (a la Tiger Woods). Reality talent shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent take full advantage of these behavioral traits.

So, we’ve covered the required elements of the drama, the comedy and Reality TV. But so far, I still haven’t touched one genre of TV entertainment, the action show. More on that next week.

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