The Televised Underclass

by Doug Allen

Drew Gardner views reality TV shows like Killer Karaoke – “essentially a mash-up of American Idol and Fear Factor” – as microcosms of the current capitalist economy:

Capitalist economic systems require one central point of internal logic for them to function; in order to constantly expand profits, workers must be paid less than the value their work creates, ideally as little as possible, as little as the labor market will bear. In classical economic theory, new value only comes from one place, labor. In order to concentrate wealth for owners, shareholders and managers, this surplus value is then concentrated into financial instruments and forms of rent that charge the workers who created the value in the first place. It is a parasitic relationship.

Reality TV contestants are an excellent object for this kind of relationship, because they are a disposable, easily replaced group of workers. Because their working conditions are not regulated by the Screen Actor’s Guild, contestants can work unusually long hours. … Most agree to work for food and shelter during the time they are being filmed, in hopes that the exposure might lead to some future opportunity, if not just for the sheer narcissistic reward of appearing on television.

Alyssa Rosenberg adds:

Hotels, big-box stores, and other employers that rely heavily on low-wage workers increasingly seem to have tested, and found, the floor for what they can ask employees to do and still find a steady stream of labor without provoking union organizing drives. But unlike reality television, low-wage American jobs were never going to offer massive prizes to a few workers to defuse more general discontent about compensation and working conditions. In the lottery that is the American economy, if you promise millions of dollars to a single person, you’ll be able to take many millions more from even those who know they’re getting played for suckers—particularly if you’re asking them to participate in one bad subset of the economy because the one they long to escape is worse.