Saturday, November 12, 2016

America's First Hacked Election

It wasn't the Comey letters. It wasn't Anthony Weiner. It wasn't a nerd holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. It wasn't the hidden pneumonia, the "basket of deplorables," or the 9/11 fainting spell. It wasn't Rust Belt anger. It wasn't Wall Street money, It wasn't the Clinton Foundation.

It wasn't Jill Stein, and it wasn't Gary Johnson.

It wasn't two candidates, both equally despised and distrusted. It wasn't that the Obama coalition collapsed. It wasn't low turnout - not of blacks, or Latinos, or college-educated white women. It wasn't the God-gap and it wasn't the evangelicals.

It wasn't white racism; it wasn't nativist populism. It wasn't gender hatred. It wasn't dog whistles. It wasn't Putin. It wasn't Roger Stone, and it wasn't Steve Bannon.

None of the above.

It is the internet, and it is the screen by which you are reading my words.

Just as certainly as the 1960 election was transformed by televised national debates, using a technology that has been in place for nearly a decade, the election of 2016 was formed and contoured by a technology that had been around for over 25 years, and had even played a part in earlier rounds of presidential voting.

But it wasn't the effective use of technology that made the election of 2016 what it was. That had occurred 4 years prior, when the Democrats' networked app-based system worked, and the Republicans' ORCA system suffered a complete meltdown.

Instead, it was the hacking of an election. It was the clever use of digital platforms to solve a problem. Think of how the word "hack" is now used amongst coders - one of the premier conferences for budding start-ups is called "Disrupt Hackathon." It means looking at a system, peering into the nuts and bolts, and coming up with an intuition, an inkling of an elegant "hack" to disrupt the layers of conventionalism surrounding a supposed stable system.

It was president-elect Donald J. Trump, star of 14 seasons of The Apprentice and master of the 140-character digital haiku, who devised and deployed this hack.

The hack was elegantly simple - keep every eyeball on you. Say anything, do anything. None of it mattered. The dismissive fact-checking that would come afterwards was part of the hack. The outraged talking heads, the old-world newspapers struggling to become monetized digital platforms, the conventional attacks of 15 Republican contenders and one hot mess of a Democrat - all of it played into the hack.

Truth be told, Hillary Clinton had attempted a hack of her own, years before this campaign had taken shape. She and her husband had different concerns. They were looking for a non-conventional protective layer of digital privacy for matters weighty and trivial. Bill and Hillary Clinton came up with a kludge, Their inelegant hack was a basement private mail server with a 280-page instruction manual and nothing better than conventional security. It was a legacy system supporting a Blackberry.

Podesta emails; Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear; Julian Assange; even, are nothing compared to Donald's elegant hack. It had worked before in a post-modern liberal democracy. Silvio Berlusconi had leveraged his media business acumen and  celebrity status into pure political power. Trump had laid the groundwork - 14 seasons with Comcast-NBCUniversal and his old-Manhattan friend was Jeff Zucker, former CEO and President of NBCUniversal and now president of CNN Worldwide.

For most viewers of The Apprentice, Trump might be a rascal and he might be a character out of Sex and the City, but he was watchable. He did fail in the casino industry, he did own beauty pageants, he did appear on Wrestlemania, he did set up a phony university to bilk innocents of their money, he did discriminate in housing practices in the 1970s, he was a sexist pig who loved his daughter in a pervy way - so what? We the audience expect so much less from our celebrities, particularly the ones we get to see "up close and personal." As his celebrity character moved into the political domain, the bar for conduct was accordingly dropped - but just for him.

Donald Trump entertained as the host of a reality TV show. He broke through the wall that is our screens. I write with the utmost respect: Donald Trump hacked the American presidential election system.

There was a second hack, not nearly as significant. That was the hack of one particular social media platform, by creating a near denial-of-service overflow of attention-grabbing tweets. While Trump never got the hang of the RT just right, and the late night Android rants came to a trickle in the waning days of the campaign, Trump brought on fusion between digital video and social media. The mainstream national media was forced to produce daily digests of Trump's tweets (and the occasional Clinton counterpunch) and treated it as news.

But I won't ever call this the Twitter Election of 2016, though it might be the one-and-only time Twitter will matter as much. Four years is a long time for any social media platform. Just ask the owners of MySpace.

Instead, I call this the Hacked Election of 2016. And there is no doubt in my mind that this year's "Disrupt Hackathon" winner is Donald J. Trump.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Aftershow

Yesterday I participated in an aftershow to the reality TV series Survivor: Election 2016.

I live in a blue state on the East Coast. I also work in a sector of American society that actually has the word "liberal" in its masthead, a small and elite and highly-selective boutique residential "liberal arts college" which costs over a quarter of a million dollars for 4 years of undergraduate education. I live and work within a bubble inside the bubble. Liberal arts for the One Percent.

On Wednesday, as at many institutions of a similar ilk, the President of my college and the Dean of the Faculty wrote to us of the pain many students are experiencing from the outcome of the election. The Dean of Students office arranged two opportunities "to reflect and to tend to each other." The Dean wrote: "Some members of our community may feel particularly threatened by the actual outcome given the policy promises that have been made. I am writing to ask you to, where appropriate, find space in your classrooms for respectful discussion of the election and the result. Students should feel able to articulate their views and treat each other with respect as part of a democratic process. I hope and trust that you can help to facilitate these important discussions during this difficult time."

The cynic in me had to simply roll my eyes at this reaction. Would there have been support groups arranged for the losers had the election gone the other way? Of course not. Not in the bubble within the bubble. These were first-time voters who had been told by the interwebs that their choice for American Idol was a sure thing. And she lost to a crude man, a racist and a xenophobe! How can this be? What a crushing disappointment!

Hey kids, how about being on the losing side 6 out of 12 times? That's my track record. That's how elections work. It's even the second time in my lifetime that my chosen one garnered the popular vote but lost the electoral college. How about a grief counseling session for poor, poor pitiful me?

I knew I had to go to one of these events just to let the pain wash over me, and I spent both of my classes yesterday looking at the election - not to salve the hurt feelings of the losing side, but to teach. In one class on the Jewish tradition, we looked at exit polling data and talked about American Jewish politics and nativist anti-Semitism; in the other class on Middle Eastern affairs, we talked about how a Trump presidency would impact the Middle East.

My bet is that the fairly engaged student body, a group of educated, largely upper-class millennials voting in their first US presidential election, were 60-40 in favor of Clinton, and that was reflected in the discussions in my classroom. Maybe half of them actually voted. But at the "tending" session, the pain of the losers was quite clear to me. People of color, immigrants, first-generation Americans, women, LGBT were all devastated.

I intended not to speak at the "tending" session, but somehow I got in the last word, being prompted by the college Chaplain with a wink and nod that I, supposedly a wise old man, ought to say something. I'll tell you what I said in a moment.

I realized within minutes after the grief session began that I was attending what reality show programmers call an "Aftershow." If you are familiar with the aftershow phenomenon in reality show television programming, you know what this is all about. Think of "After Paradise" that comes at the end of a season of "Bachelor in Paradise" or "Big Brother After Show" at the end of a season of "Big Brother." After spending a season becoming emotionally attached to the contestants - whatever the outcome - producers discovered that the audience wanted to vent their elation and their grief over the contestants that had won or lost. For reality show producers, it is one last way to milk an extra episode out of the emotional outcome that the recently concluded results show had produced.

OK, this was more like an aftershow after a particularly jarring episode of "The Walking Dead" when one of the lead multi-season characters gets eaten by a zombie or beaten to death by Negan. Think of Chris Hardwick gently empathizing with the devastated audience. The aftershow I attended was prepared only for those who needed to grieve the loss of their standard bearer. There were no Negan fans or zombie advocates in the room. But it had all the trappings of an aftershow - in this case the therapeutic and indulgent self-reflection of the disappointed side, filled with caring professionals who are paid to deal with student trauma and to provide grief counseling.

So after an interminable hour of grief counseling, here is what I blurted out.

"There is a silver lining to this election day. In Massachusetts, Question 4 passed. Starting January 1, 2018, I will be only 35 minutes away from a recreational cannabis dispensary. I'll be able to choose my strain, pick out my edibles, and as long as I can get back across the state border safely, I'll be perfectly fine."

It was the only laugh of the aftershow. I waited for the laughter to subside, and then I continued, ever so carefully:

"We live in a blue state. Blue states won't go along with the Trump agenda. California, Maine, and Nevada all passed laws permitting recreational cannabis. It's not just marijuana - blue states are places where the majority of citizens share your values. We will be living in an age in which the clarion call of states' rights - the default position of Republicans in defiance of the "encroachments" of a liberal Supreme Court - can now be used by progressives to fend off the de-engineering of the social compact of the former 5-4 court which will be attempted by the soon-to-become 6-3 or 7-2 conservative Supreme Court of the Republicans. We can use the state's rights position to keep marriage equality, to keep abortion rights, to keep all of it intact, at least on a regional scale. This a country of regions. Pick carefully where you decide to live. When you graduate, find a job in a blue state. We need to learn from the conservatives how to strategically keep our accomplishments intact."

Afterwards, a colleague who had shared her grief to the group and with whom I have zero contact approached to tell me that what I had said was the first encouraging thing she had heard in two days. I was her aftershow catharsis.

As the TV series Survivor: Election 2016 comes to a close, we must remember who produced it. Comcast-NBCUniversal may not get an Emmy, but deserves all the credit. Comcast-NBCUniveral created Donald Trump. And there was money to be made from this shitshow, enough to go around to all the tiny associate producers. As Les Moonves, a lesser competitor from CBS, said of the Trump campaign in February this year: "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS...bring it on, Donald. Keep going." 

I think I am done with this reality show metaphor and analysis. I will henceforth return to standard blogiating. But I really encourage you to read my entire series:

Part I: The Star of the 2016 Election (honestly, I think this was my best, and it is full of pertinent links to videos)
Part II: The Season Finale of Survivor: Election 2016
Part III: Survivor: Election 2016 - The results show
Part IV: The Aftershow - you just read it

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Walking Dawn in America

When I attempted three weeks ago to make a thoughtful prediction of the US Presidential election, I recalled that
I have a horrible track record predicting presidential elections. For as long as I have been blogging, I have been wrong, both in 2008 (when I got the right outcome, but with numbers that were woefully off) and 2012 (when I thought Romney would win).
Well, here I am again, as wrong as ever. I had predicted 305-233 in favor of Clinton. Turns out these two numbers might be right, but with the wrong colors, and the opposite outcome. To my credit, I thought it would be tight, much tighter than my fellow predictors had imagined, a victory without a mandate. At least that much was right. 

At least I was wise enough this year to avoid all bets. 

As an intital Bernie supporter who has never before pulled the lever before for Hillary Clinton, I felt I was #StuckWithHer. Personally, I am glad to be done with the Clinton family soap opera. Whatever political coalition emerges to oppose the future President Trump, the Clintons won't be part of it. Good riddance. I wish the Clinton Foundation great success. 

The only silver lining? Massachusetts passed Question 4. In a little more than a year my neighboring state will be selling recreational cannabis. I'll need it, because for the moment what I am ailing from (at least for the next 4 years) does not qualify for medical cannabis here in Connecticut.

I'll try later to place this within the analytical model of a reality show, which I have come to believe is one useful way of processing the outcome. The central character of 2016's most shocking reality series deserves his own account.

Monday, November 07, 2016

I Gotta Have Faith

I gotta have faith. I lost faith in God a long time ago. But I think I've found one thing I believe in - the wisdom of the American electorate. 

On the eve of the results show series finale, I'm rooting for lesser lead character Contestant B, the last one standing - damaged goods herself, a drama unto her own right - to beat the caddish, lewd, testosterone-fueled reality star, Contestant A. And like you, I've become emotionally attached to my choice. I hope my side wins.

My hope spills over into belief. I gotta have faith that a majority of Americans - Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Third-party voters - agree on one thing: the central character of Survivor: Election 2016 should not be the next President of the United States.

I gotta have faith that enough Republicans of the "old school" note the deafening loneliness of a contestant without a single ex-President at his back.

I gotta have faith in the Independents and the Undecideds. I know that even now, Election Eve, there are still 5% undecided, and another 7% will go to third parties. In some states it won't matter, but in some states it will make all the difference.

I gotta have faith that the message of hate, ignorance, and despair emanating from Contestant A will repulse a majority of my fellow audience members, who will vote strategically. My plea to the 12% : if it is within the margin of error in your state, please consider voting for my Contestant B.

The reason is simple: this not particularly thoughtful man-child; this late-night hustler of universities, of steaks, of vodka; this hot mess of a celebrity "businessman" - is not fit to lead the country in any direction other than to its own quick demise.

I gotta have faith that the worst outbreak of native anti-Semitism in my lifetime will be rejected. I gotta have faith that the worst outbreak of Islamophobia in 14 years will be rejected. I gotta have faith that the misogyny, the nativism, and the brutality of Contestant A repulses a majority of fellow audience members.

I gotta have faith that a majority of Americans will vote to preserve a constitutional democracy. We've already gone 9 months without a fully staffed Supreme Court. We're engaged in three major military confrontations in the Middle East, but not a word is spoken of it. We've been distracted by the show.

The alternative is not unthinkable. Imagine Silvio Berlusconi with nuclear codes. Would it be the beginning of The Plot Against America? Aren't we already there?

I have to have faith that sometime - Wednesday at the latest - America will, in a moment of sheer irony, deliver a simple message to the central character of the greatest reality show of all time: "Donald, you're fired!"

And then whatever the outcome,  as we all know, the series isn't over.

Next up - the "after show" episode. 

Sunday, November 06, 2016

How to watch the results show

How will we know how election night goes?

By mid-day Tuesday we'll start getting some turnout rumors, and by late afternoon the National Election Pool will start producing exit polling numbers. Early election numbers will certainly be available, but those numbers won't be formally released to the AP and then tallied by the NEP until polls close in a particular state.

Polls close first in parts of IN and KY at 6 pm (all times eastern), both will ultimately go to Trump. If you start watching returns at 6 pm, be prepared for a long, long night.

The first real test of Clinton's firewall comes at 7:30, when NC and OH close. If the network decision desks make a quick call in either state, be surprised. Expect both states to be called in the 10 pm hour. In general, expect a 1-3 hour delay in calling the contested states. Expect lots of "too early" and "too close" to call results throughout the night.

Most of FL closes at 7 pm, but the panhandle stays open until 8 pm. FL will be called late.

At 8 pm NH, MI, and PA all close. All three are expected to go to Clinton. A win by Trump in any one of these three would be necessary for Trump to "have a path." If Trump should win 2 out of 3, Trump is the winner. Expect NH to go late, possibly MI. 

At 9 pm WI, CO, and AZ close. A win by Trump in any one of these three would be necessary for Trump to "have a path." If Trump should win 2 out of 3, Trump is the winner. All three could go late.

By 10 pm, a certain number of states will have been called. If the race is close, Trump will certainly have a lead at this point from called races in the south and midwest. No one would yet be near the mandated 270 electoral votes. Also at 10 pm IA and NV close. Expect at least one to go late. Trump must win at least one of the 2 to "have a path." If he wins both, he likely is the winner. 

Anytime after 11 pm one might expect a call for winner of the contest. 

Also at 11 pm, the west coast closes. AK is at midnight, and HI at 1 am.

If this is Clinton blowout, expect a winner declared in the 11 pm - midnight hour. In 2012, it was at 11:25 pm that hold-out FoxNews reluctantly called OH for Obama, giving Obama the win. This time around, the consensus is Clinton will win, but with less electoral votes than Obama in 2012, when he got 332. In that case, expect to be waiting well after midnight.

This could easily be an election that spills into the morning of Nov. 9 without a declared winner.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Survivor: Election 2016 - The results show

In two previous posts, I tried to make the case that we are not being subjected to a normal presidential election cycle, but rather to a reality TV series. In my first post, I made the case that the central star of the show is the accomplished reality show host and participant Donald J. Trump. In my second post, I explained how in normal reality show arcs, the central character is subjected to a shocking "reveal" which throws the competition into disarray, driving the audience's emotional attachments into discombobulation. At the end of that second post, written 3 weeks ago, I wrote:
Producers of reality shows know there is one final ploy to release upon the audience - a dramatic invocation of the rules of the show - a kind of breaking of the fourth wall. Contestants get disqualified, the rules can suddenly be changed. Rumors abound that the call-in vote is somehow "fixed." Part of the drama lies in the capricious rules/no rules that can be invoked by the producers to apply one last shuffle of the deck. As long as the audience keeps watching.
Last Friday we indeed were subjected to just such a "unseen hand" changing the rules of the show's arc with the announcement that there might be a "foul" on the part of the lesser "Contestant B," the last contestant standing in the way of the far more controversial "Contestant A" winning the show. We've also seen charges that the national preferential vote is rigged, or that members of the audience who support "Contestant B" are not being able to register their vote.

Everything is playing out true-to-script for a reality show producer's wet dream - the highest-rated reality show final episode, the episode usually known as the "results show." Typically the "results show" is a reminiscence - the former contestants make brief appearances, the last standing contestants are trotted onstage, and the results are announced. Tears for one, joy for the other, and then a triumphant final ritual crowning of the victor. Catharsis.

So here it is the Friday before the results show finale. Fridays have become the day of dramatic shifts in the show's narrative (Friday October 7 - the "pussygrab" tape is revealed by the Washington Post; Friday, October 28 - FBI director Comey's letter to Congress). Are there any tricks left in the producer's bag to keep the audience riveted to the screen? Is there some unpredictable wild-card event that might be introduced into the narrative arc that is even beyond the grasp of the contestants and the producers? Have the producers created a behemoth of a mega-hit that even they cannot control?

So the final bit of drama could be a further breaking of the "fourth wall" - this time throwing not only the contestants but also the producers for a loop. On Survivor, it could be a medical episode hitting one of the contestants; on Big Brother, it could be unwanted interference from outside the hermetically sealed guest house. In our context, this could be a DDoS attack, a terrorist event, or a riveting act of violence.

There is certainly enough already in the narrative pipeline to keep the audience riveted. Already a full fifth of the total audience has already registered its preference. The online fanboy prediction sites have already issued their final prognostications. The consensus of all the prediction sites has the main character losing, but warn the audience that "anything can happen."

All of which makes for an unprecedented series finale - a results show that might either be a drawn-out bit of contrived drama, or a shocker that ends before midnight eastern time. Either way, the producers have delivered to their corporate owners a fantastic juggernaut. The audience is ready for one last orgiastic event - must see TV.

 Note: The reality show analysis continues here.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

One Week Out - The Tightening

This has been a strange election. Wouldn't it end perfectly if Nate Silver, who got 49 out of 50 states right in 2008, and 50 out of 50 right in 2012, turns out to be all wrong this time, missing 4 or 5 states?

Using my simple 70% yardstick from's electoral map, nothing has changed from last week to this week. We're still at 272-179 with 87 battleground electoral votes. But the tightening trend places both CO (75.4% Clinton) and NH (72.7% Clinton) on the cusp of being reclassified as battleground.

Let's take a look at the current 80% map:

Compared to the 80% map from 2 weeks ago, Clinton has "lost" a number of states: CO, WI, PA, and NH. Trump has lost UT. Odds remain good that none of these states are "lost" - I am just showing what the floor for each candidate is likely to be. And it also gives a sense of where the final week's ad buys and candidate appearances ought to be.

Two weeks ago, I predicted 305-233. I am going to stick with that, though such an outcome might be the best the Democrats can hope for.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Two Week Out - Clinton Loses Ground

A week ago I made a prediction of a Clinton victory in a somewhat close electoral vote victory of 305-233, with a 2 point margin in the popular vote.
In the intervening week, both Florida and Nevada have fallen under the 70% fivethirtyeight yardstick, moving both into the tossup category. Here is the 70% map as of today:

A surprising diminished lead for Clinton, which looks pretty much like the 80% map of a week ago. I'm sticking with my prediction.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Three Weeks Out - First Prediction of US Election

I have a horrible track record predicting presidential elections. For as long as I have been blogging, I have been wrong, both in 2008 (when I got the right outcome, but with numbers that were woefully off) and 2012 (when I thought Romney would win).
So let's try again...
I now have a simple rule: if gives a state a better than 70% chance of going for a particular candidate, I give it to that candidate. At 3 weeks out, the chances of tectonic shifts in a state's results are approaching nil.
So let's look at this morning's 70% electoral map:

So even if Trump wins in all the tossups (Arizona, Iowa, Ohio, and North Carolina - as well as the single votes in Maine and Nebraska), Clinton wins 307-231.

OK, let's make this even tougher, let's look at an 80% or better map:

Note that three states move into the tossup column: Alaska, Nevada, and Florida. Even if all these former and new tossup states went to Trump, Clinton is the winner, 272-266. A squeaker.

Now let's slide the yardstick to 90% or better:

Now we can add South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and Georgia to the tossup column. This map represents the absolute floor for each candidate.

So here is my prediction: barring some cataclysmic late "October surprise" of tectonic proportions (the release of 33,000 emails, chock full of classified documents; a foreign disaster; a cataclysmic 9/11-level event; Clinton physically collapsing in the final debate; oh hell - maybe an alien "first contact") - Hillary Clinton has won this election.

Which means, which means...

Let us assume that Bannon, Conway et al, can read a map. Let us further assume that Trump can do the same. What this means is that tomorrow night's debate is his almost last chance. I say almost because I suspect there is one more ploy at his disposal - in the final 2-1/2 weeks Trump can purchase prime time chunks of network television as Ross Perot did in 1992. Maybe we'll have a foretaste of TrumpTV. Let's assume that all of these certain and potential upcoming performances are desperate, no-holds-barred, unconventional presentations. I don't think it will matter.

The concrete has set, the cake has been baked, and the train has left the station.

The only questions now are the size of the electoral vote victory, and the margin of the popular vote win. My guess: 305-233 (less than the 2012 margin of victory); 47-45% (about the same 2 point margin as in 2012).

Be certain that I got it wrong yet again.

Actually, I hope for a 1964-style blowout (486-52; +20 margin in the popular vote). Maybe a Clinton-Dole 1996 result (379-159; +9 margin) is more realistic? (h/t @soverytired) The only reason I won't go with a blowout scenario is the "Brexit" factor - I am convinced that a sizable number of poll respondents are not answering honestly. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

How did we get here?

If you had told me in 2014 that I would be writing an editorial for a local newspaper on behalf of Hillary Clinton for President, I would have offered to make a bet against you.

I, like many sentient adults who lived through the 1990s, suffer from Clinton fatigue. Make no mistake, I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

In my mind, his policies were largely positive, despite the triangular centrism of his social policy. His stewardship of foreign and domestic policy was admirable.

But it was all the muck, the back story, and the scandals, that drove me to fatigue. The ugly persecution of Clinton and his ridiculous impeachment by Congress was exhausting. He didn't launch the impeachment, but his predatory behavior in the Oval Office started the avalanche of Republican hypocrisy which ensued.

Hilary had her back story also. I've always assumed most of it is true.

There certainly was a "vast right-wing conspiracy" out to get her and her husband, even now 20 years later. Some voters may be just now getting to know the Clintons. But for us baby boomers - we already know the story.

So I had enough of the Clintons. In 2014 I said that if the Republicans pick Bush and the Democrats picked Clinton, I would move to Canada.

The sclerotic Democratic party and President Obama together could come up with nothing better than Hillary Clinton, the second-most disliked person in American politics. But the Republicans were in for a surprise. Instead of "the smart Bush" with his endorsements and his $250 million war chest, the Republicans were "primaried" into anointing the most disliked person in the history of American politics as their candidate.

He strides the podium like his mustachioed predecessor, he speaks of dark global conspiracies, and he promises to jail his opponent. He's not Republican, he's not Democrat. He's simply a brand promoter, a man who needs to hear and see his name. That's what celebrities crave.

In the inchoate gobbledygook of his political stances - all of which can change on the dime of cynical convenience - there is nothing but fascism. Donald Trump might very well be the last President of the United States.

What about a protest vote instead? For me it is simple, particularly after the debacle of the Florida recall in 2000. Any vote that even remotely lessens the popular majority of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump is a vote to ensure that the dolchstosslegende will survive after November 8. The future of our democracy remains locked up in the balance of powers between the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial branches, not in the ravings of a preening self-promoter. The only way a citizen can put a stake through the heart of American fascism is to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Season Finale of Survivor: Election 2016

In my last post, I argued that this is not a presidential election we are witnessing. Instead, I argued, we are watching an executive producer's wet dream - the perfect reality TV series.

What trips up the lead character of a semi-scripted reality show - whether it be a good Bachelorette or a deceitful, caddish Bachelor - is betrayal. It is the only dramatic "reveal" that can keep viewers watching until the end of the series, as we approach the season finale. Such a reveal has the ability to wrench the audience's pre-conceived notions and emotional bonds. It usually makes for a top-ten rated finale episode.

What political pundits call "the October surprise," TV executives call "the dramatic cliffhanger."

And so the central character of this season's reality extravaganza, the star of two prior reality show stints, is a cad that 40% of the audience is rooting for, and a deplorable man-boy that a bit more than 40% of the audience hates. Cameras have been trained on the central character for years. Secreted away in the treasure trove of outtakes (owned by the very network which propelled the central character into the deplorable cad persona we now all are addicted to) are the indelible moments of betrayal needed to generate a riveting season finale.

And lo and behold, the reveal arrives, and suddenly the last undecided members of the audience can witness in plain view the cad for what he is. The rooting audience is buffeted but blindly holds on to the discredited cad, the undecided audience is prompted to finally take a stand, and the smug detractors are affirmed for their perspicacity.

Producers of reality shows know there is one final ploy to release upon the audience - a dramatic invocation of the rules of the show - a kind of breaking of the fourth wall. Contestants get disqualified, the rules can suddenly be changed. Rumors abound that the call-in vote is somehow "fixed." Part of the drama lies in the capricious rules/no rules that can be invoked by the producers to apply one last shuffle of the deck. As long as the audience keeps watching.

As they say on American Idol, the voting lines are now open.

Note: The reality show analysis continues here.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Star of the 2016 Election

Been over a year since I blogged, but there is an election upon us, the likes of which we have never seen. Since I've used this blog for a kind of therapy in years past, I thought I'd give it a go now.

Therapy begins...

I have watched reality TV shows, even a few episodes of The Apprentice, particularly the season of Celebrity Apprentice when poker pro Annie Duke and comedienne Joan Rivers were contestants.

The thing about reality shows is that they are relatively cheap to produce, and they give off the aura that they are a slice into the behavior of
  • pretty people under stress (The Bachelorette/Bachelor franchise, Real Housewives of... franchise, etc.); or
  • skilled and unskilled people under stress (Top Chef, Master Chef, Flip or Flop, Project Runway, Survivor, Amazing Race, Project Greenlight, Shark Tank); or
  • celebrities under stress (Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, The Voice, America's Got Talent)
The entire category of "reality television" is a derivative of another cheap-to-produce genre of "real life" entertainment - the venerable talent-contest format, which goes back to the dawn of the medium.

It is cheap entertainment, and a good bit of it is contrived. As we know from the "insiders" perspective provided by Lifetime's po-mo dramedy UnREAL, behind the scenes of these reality confections are writers and talent agents, associate producers and cameramen, dramatic themes and romantic complications, heroes and villains. For every audience, there is something to gawk at. For every character that horrifies one segment of the audience, there is another character (or the very same individual) who gladdens some other segment.

The most successful of these shows have a social media component. In a vertically integrated media market, any show that can generate Facebook likes and Twitter hashtags - what the industry calls "talk back" - is a show that is running on all media cylinders.

Let's not pretend any longer - Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump is the central character of a reality television series called Election 2016.

This is the first reality show/social media election in the history of the American republic. In terms of media novelty, it is as revolutionary as the 1960 campaign, the first to broadcast a nationally televised presidential election debate. One candidate - the one who went on to just barely win - was a master of the imagery of television; the other - the ultimate loser - was a sweating, nervous mess. The then-loser Richard Nixon would never make the same mistake. When 20 year later a Hollywood actor-turned-politician ran for President, the die was cast for an easy media-induced victory.

Which brings us to 2016. The reality series we have been witness to these past 18 months is based on two prior series in which Trump also served as the central character.

The first tryout was The Apprentice. Lest you forget, in 2004 reality TV producer Mark Burnett (whose Survivor was the breakout summer hit of 2000, and has since given us Shark Tank, The Amazing Race, and many others) approached a skeptical Trump with an idea for a reality show, a kind of ultimate job interview. Ignoring his agent, Trump tried out the format, and within a half hour of taping he realized that even if the show was a flop, he could tap into a wider audience to promote his brand - in other words, free unfiltered advertising.

The Apprentice premiered in January 2004. It placed in the top-10 that first season. 28 million viewers watched the first season finale. GE was then finishing an acquisition offer from French-owned Universal, spinning off NBC to become NBCUniversal in May, 2004. Throughout The Apprentice's run, that conglomerate was about to be acquired by an even bigger media giant. Thus by 2013 NBCUniversal had become a wholly owned subsidiary of Comcast. (Remember all those snarky corporate jokes about GE and Kabletown in 30 Rock?)

The Apprentice ran for 4 seasons over 2-1/2  years on Thursday nights at 9 pm. It was moved to Monday, and then to Sunday. It never achieved the success of that first season, but it was cheap to make, had good ratings, and was profitable. Burnett even peddled a spin-off called The Apprentice: Martha Stewart to NBC for the 2005 season. Trump was one of its executive producers.

The Apprentice: Martha Stewart was not renewed.

By the sixth season, which ended in 2007, The Apprentice was in 75th place for the season, and only 10.6 million viewers watched the finale.

It was during the break between the last season of The Apprentice and the cynical re-tool known as Celebrity Apprentice that Trump had his second tryout for the character he is now playing. This was Trump's one and only miniseries.

Amongst the holdings of NBCUniversal are a number of cable outlets: Bravo, MSNBC, Syfy, E!, NBCSN, and USA Network - to name a few of the 30. On USA Network, Vince McMahon's weekly wrestling program was a profitable two hours of cheap scripted drama every Monday night from its inception in 1993.

Sometimes things work; sometimes they don't. GE and McMahon's WWF (now WWE) each lost $35 million on the failed one-season pro football league, the XFL. But NBC Universal and the WWE continued with a more lucrative connection - broadcast rights to Raw and its secondary series Smackdown. For a time McMahon moved his shows to a non-NBC Universal outlet, but by 2005 all of WWE's weekly offerings were on USA Network.

In pro wrestling, the big money is in pay per view. And nothing is bigger than the annual scripted drama known as Wrestlemania. As in any year, the lead-up to Wrestlemania XXIII, held in Ford Field in Detroit on April 1, 2007, was made up of dramatic narratives presented in episodic form on the USA Network. One of the narratives was entitled "Battle of the Billionaires" in which two wrestlers would settle a manly bet made in a moment of contrived drama between two billionaires weeks before.

McMahon's dramatic back-story as gargantuan owner of the WWE was perfect for the role of Billionaire A (a despised character, a scrapper, a braggart).Trump played the tough-guy outsider role of Billionaire B (an arrogant character; also a braggart; with cosmopolitan, New York airs). On April Fool's day 2007 the story came to its conclusion. I report this as a matter of fact: Trump clotheslined McMahon outside the ring. At the conclusion of the match, which "ended" inconclusively, Billionaire Trump shaved off the hair of Billionaire McMahon - that was the bet. Then, as a kind of "shocking" coda to the narrative, wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, playing the part of the common man rebelling against the preening Billionaires, delivered a patented finishing move (the "Stunner") on Billionaire Trump. The sequence ended with Trump prone in the middle of the ring. Cut to arena rock, time for the next drama.

Thus ended the one-season miniseries "Battle of the Billionaires." Celebrity Apprentice or The Apprentice would continue for another 7 seasons. As Trump has said repeatedly, NBC wanted him back after the 2014 season ended, offering a commitment for two further years. But by then Trump was preparing for another show.

Meanwhile, McMahon spent together with his wife Linda a reported $50 million on two failed bids to put Linda in the US Senate from the state of Connecticut, once in 2010 and again in 2012. The first two attempts at WWE-ing a political campaign failed. But what if Billionaire B were to give it a try?

I repeat, the central character of our collective reality series known as the 2016 elections is Donald J. Trump. He causes angst on the Upper West Side and amongst Buckleyan Republicans; he evokes cheers from suburbia and fly-over country. He's more the swaggering tough guy of "Battle of the Billionaires," but he's got the decisive demeanor of the boardroom. He's also got social media by the throat.

Ratings come and ratings go. Writers rarely have enough fresh ideas for more than a season or two. It is the melancholy nature of television that a hit show will eventually lose steam.

But until that day, all vertically integrated media is good media. It's free. It's cheap. You just have to be comfortable in front of the camera. Same advice for a TV contestant - Be yourself.

Love you or hate you, they'll blog about you or tweet about you, and your name - on licensed properties around the world - shall go down in history. Maybe you'll be President.

Trump, in other words, is killing it.
Note: The reality show analysis continues here