Ranjan here. Talking about how all of media is now one big reality TV show.
I always like to reflect on things I got wrong. I can safely say, when it comes to culture and media, there is one "call" that I got more wrong than anything.
In 2002, I thought reality TV was a fad nearing its conclusion.
This belief led to a pretty funny story.
NYC WHEN YOU’RE 22.
In the Fall of 2002, after just moving to NYC, I was out on a weekend night with a few friends. It was one of those "everyone is new to the city and still has a glimmer in their eye” kind of nights. A girl I hadn't met before and I had fallen a bit behind the group while talking. Someone approached us and asked if we were a couple. They told us they were from the dating show Change of Heart.
I said yes, we were dating. The girl with me surprisingly went along with the ruse. The ‘agent’ said we would be a great fit for the show took our cell phone numbers and gave us a card.
I started pitching "my girlfriend" on why we should go for it. She was a bit skeptical (very reasonably so) but I started talking about how the whole "reality tv thing" that we had both grown up with (the Real World, Survivor) was on the way out. This could be a fun time capsule of sorts. The type of story to tell your grandkids about (or write in a newsletter two decades later).
She found this funny and said she was in. Oh, to be 22 again.
First thing, Change of Heart, for the unfamiliar, was a reality TV dating game. The premise was:
A couple, whose relationship is on the rocks, would each go on a date with a person casted by the show (which would be filmed).
On the show they would talk about their relationship, along with their experience on the dates, to determine if they were truly ready to move on.
At the show's conclusion, each member of the couple would choose "Stay Together" or "Change of Heart" by holding up a sign.
That's the rapper The Game
To recount the entire story might require a New Yorker feature. As this is a newsletter, let me tell you what I vividly remember:
There was a briefing beforehand to go over our "story". "My girlfriend" had recently graduated from MIT, while I had graduated from Emory. We had prepped a story about how we had been dating long-distance in our senior year, and now had finally ended up in the same place in NYC. With co-location came tensions.
The producer excitedly told us he wanted to turn this into a special "Ivy League edition" of Change of Heart. I informed him neither MIT nor Emory are Ivy League schools. He persisted.
To make this a reality, "my girlfriend" was paired up with a recent Harvard grad, and I was set up with a current Columbia student. I'm still not 100% sure how those two ended up as part of this. (Fun fact: my "date" and I crossed paths a decade later at a NYC restaurant. It turns out she’s a writer and I regularly see her work).
As you'd probably imagine, while on the date, we were given a bunch of lines and scenarios to act out.
The day of the filming we were also given a bunch of lines to say, including some super cringeworthy ones. I was called a "minute-man" as a jest on my sexual prowess. I went along with it for the absurdity.
The other two guys in the green room with me were both actors who were there with their real-life girlfriends, also actresses, all looking for some exposure.
Before the show, the producers insisted that one of us do Change of Heart and one of us do Stay Together. "My girlfriend" and I settled this with Rocks, Paper, Scissor - best of 3.
I won and got to do Change of Heart while she was stuck with Stay Together. I still feel like a bit of an asshole for being “the asshole”.
It was really cold in the studio (like, freezing) and we were told it had something to do with the host's plastic surgery and preventing sweating. I still don’t know if that's a regular TV thing.
I'm glad the episode is not currently online. I saw it on a VHS a few years back and it was so cringeworthy.
But, it was a lot of fun and there was even this pre-social media virality element to it. I got emails from high school friends or long-lost acquaintances who happened to see it. A VHS copy circulated around the trading floor and people loved it. I had old friends say “that was awesome when you dumped her.” My ex-girlfriend from college, who I was actually dating that prior year, called me up, absolutely livid. I tried explaining to everyone that we weren’t actually dating. It just ended up confusing.
I had my Warhol-ian taste of reality TV fame. I was embarrassingly called a ‘minute-man’ on national TV, yet still had female friends of friends come up (“I heard you were on Change of Heart”). I was kind of an asshole to some, and a bit of a champion to others. But all that really mattered was, I had gotten people’s attention.
I'm really glad I got to see things behind the scenes just once. Just to know. The manufactured reality. The artificial conflict. I mean, we all "know" it's scripted, but, it's still something else to know it's all scripted.
THE KARDASHIANIZATION OF EVERYTHING
I think a lot of about that experience, and what it must've taken to be a reality TV star. To constantly tread the line of real and fake. To live in a constant state of conflict, both artificial and real. That endless pursuit of being on as many minds as possible.
It's 2020, and reality TV didn't fade away. Reality TV won. Bigly.
The act of leveraging celebrity into business or other, previously unexpected, realms of life has effectively become a prerequisite. Athletes and musicians are VC's. The Kardashians own us all. Trump, is, you know, Trump. MIT Media Lab scientists date Brad Pitt. And on and on.
And there is certainly real money and value in all this. Kylie sold 50% of her cosmetics line for a real $600mm. And of course, there's Musk:
In the perfect reminder of our reality TV universe, Elon did not actually wear those shoes. Someone on Reddit photoshopped them on, yet he posted it to his own Instagram.
The thing that I can't shake is how celebrity has become the starting point for everything else. You don’t do things and then get famous. You get famous, and then do things. There's always certainly been an element of showmanship required for most public-facing success. Good public speaking and presentation skills, combined with a bit of P.T. Barnum, has always been the baseline.
But that was primarily reserved for the salespeople, CEOs and Steve Jobs. Not the economists, policymakers, managers and technocrats.
There were a few bits of recent news that reminded me how those elements of micro-celebrity and reality show instincts have become a precursor to all the other things.
The first came up after reading The Verge piece on Lambda School. Why would a story about a coding school startup trigger my reality TV memory? Because I've regularly heard how Austen Allred parlayed his tech-celeb into the startup, and they weren't communicated in a negative context. People lauded how he effectively 'growth-hacked' his social media celebrity to build hype and grow his startup.
The Lambda School thing is pretty specific to my world, but I never would’ve guessed something like a coding education would be the domain of a micro-celebrity (or even a supermodel) versus a traditional programmer-educator type. Maybe a coding education is such a commoditized good that the only differentiator really is a famous founder? I guess this week’s news is a reminder that it’s probably not.
BLOOMBERG AND ATTENTION-HIJACKING
Of course, Politics has become one big reality show. I've written endlessly on the problematic nature of this, but it shows no sign of slowing down. In the past few hours:
Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrumpMini Mike is a 5’4” mass of dead energy who does not want to be on the debate stage with these professional politicians. No boxes please. He hates Crazy Bernie and will, with enough money, possibly stop him. Bernie’s people will go nuts!
We want to be entertained. We are being entertained.
This Charlie Warzel piece from yesterday, “Mike Bloomberg Is Hacking Your Attention” captures a lot of what I’m talking about here:
What the Bloomberg campaign seems to have bought into is that, when you lean into the potent combination of content creation and shamelessness, any reaction it provokes is a good reaction. This strategy provides a certain amount of freedom to a candidate when you don’t care what people think of you — as long as they’re thinking of you.
The one thing that matters in reality TV is that you’re on people’s minds. Trump has always been incredibly transparent about this. He is obsessed with “ratings” but not even Nielsen-provided metrics. Just an instinctual sense of whether he is the center of attention. That’s all that matters.
Bloomberg is very clearly working to beat Trump at his own game. Steal the spotlight and Trump TV gets cancelled. It’s scary to imagine where this goes, but hey, it’s certainly entertaining.
REALITY TV ACADEMIA
I studied economics and political science during my undergrad. The people I looked up to weren’t exactly Hollywood. In fact, I probably didn’t know what most of them looked or sounded like. I just read their books and articles.
The first time I really understood the meaning of academic celebrity was over dinner in 2009. At a group dinner, someone's friend was currently a PhD in the Harvard history department. I had just finished Niall Ferguson (also at Harvard’s History department)'s The Ascent of Money and was gushing at how it was remarkable.
The postgrad, a few drinks in, looked at me with a grin and said "Ferguson's a starfucker presentist."
While I remember a lot about the Change of Heart experience, I will never forget that phrase. I learned that the historians disparagingly speak of their colleagues who obsess about the current day in an attempt to reach the masses as 'presentists'. I guess it's like Neil DeGraesse Tyson and scientists?
That was in my pre-media life, and it was one of the first times I grasped how celebrity has always mingled with ‘serious’ things. It always helped sell book TV appearances and sell books. But we’ve entered a world where celebrity now serves, not as a supercharger of existing accomplishments, but as a precondition to future ones. Holding our collective attention is a currency you can convert into pretty much anything.