KILLER KARAOKE: Reality Television and the Death of the American Middle Class

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by Drew Gardner
March 22, 2013 8:35 AM
5 Comments
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“There’s been class warfare going on for the last twenty years and my class has won.” —Warren Buffett

"I'm about to get my ass kicked by crawfish."—Steve-O

It doesn't seem unreasonable to imagine that, at the brainstorming session where the phrase "Not Reality. Actuality." was coined, one of the copywriters might have pointed out that these two words are synonyms. Apparently this observation was never made, or not with sufficient conviction, because this is now the official motto of Turner Broadcasting’s TruTV network, which specializes in reality programming. Viewers might anticipate a new threshold of lowered expectations for the shows featured on this network, based solely on its grammatically challenged motto, but one show on it, Killer Karaoke, was recently described by the New York Times as "the highest possible use of the medium and the most profound statement ever made about the human condition." This statement may be a bit of ironic hyperbole, but it contains a kernel of truth. Killer Karaoke is a window on the shrinking opportunities and declining fortunes of the American middle class.

The show combines two popular reality TV game show formats, the singing competition and the stunt challenge. It is essentially a mash-up of American Idol and Fear Factor. Like most other new reality television shows, the producers go out of their way to avoid cluttering up the show with original ideas. It is based on Sing If You Can, the 2011 British singing competition that celebrates performing while being subjected to extremely distracting circumstances, including having snakes draped on your body and being blasted with a high-powered mechanical storm simulation. Most of the concepts for the stunts on Killer Karaoke are drawn directly from Sing If You Can.


The contestants on Sing If You Can are well-known singers playing for charities, showing viewers the spectacle of celebrities experiencing various states of stress and alarm. Like American Idol or The Voice, the set design is cavernous and ostentatiously expensive-looking, and like those shows, the overarching feel of the show is one of inaccessible wealth, a wealth the audience is meant to voyeuristically ogle. The celebrity contestants on Sing If You Can may be amusingly stressed in the face of their challenges, but the audience is still very much meant to register them as betters existing in an untouchable universe of privilege.

Killer Karaoke takes this class structure and turns it on its head. The set is modest and the contestants read as average middle class karaoke enthusiasts, enthusiasts who hunger to be seen on television. The deal they accept by appearing on the show is startlingly bad. They are promised a chance to win "up to" $10,000. But it's clear that the final challenge of the show is designed to pay out an average closer to half that amount. The largest amount won so far is $7,800. Survivor offered the winning contestant one million dollars. Fear Factor offered $50,000. The deal has been getting worse and worse as reality shows have progressed.

The shows that exploded in the early aughts, starting with Survivor and Big Brother, represented a new historical relationship between reality TV actors and employers. Most reality shows today enjoy a spectacularly profitable exploitation of their actors. These shows are attractive to produce because creating the content and, ultimately, much of the show’s value requires them to utilize a class of unorganized low-paid laborer: the American reality contestant.

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, Some shows require a working day as long as 12-18 hours. Appearing on a show requires temporarily leaving, even risking, one's job. Union pay for an actor on a scripted situation comedy is $25,000 per episode. Reality TV contestants are often paid nothing at all for their work, though some receive a modest stipend. 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.

The worsening conditions for television workers with the advent of reality TV mirror the gradually worsening conditions of the American middle class over the past few decades. Since the early 1970s, business leaders and the pro-business lobby have orchestrated a massive wealth transfer from the middle class to the ruling elite through deregulation and changes in trade and tax policies that favor the upper classes at the expense of the working and middle classes. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of households earning two-thirds to twice the median income has shrunk from sixty-one percent of the US population in 1971 to fifty-one percent today, and that reduced middle class earns a lower percent of total national income. The 1972 adjusted gross wages for the average worker was $738 per week. In 2008 it was $598. In 1970 the average CEO made twice what the average worker made. Today that same CEO makes five hundred times what the average worker makes. The income of the richest one-percent has tripled since 1980, while at the same time the income of the bottom ninety percent has dropped by twenty percent. Bill Clinton and politicians from both sides of the aisles promised to create jobs with NAFTA in the early 1990s, but according to the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA actually cost the United States nearly 700,000 jobs, mostly in manufacturing.
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5 Comments

  • panger | April 2, 2013 5:43 PMReply

    Why is the audience left out of your critique? These programs need middle-class viewers, not just rich corporate overlords, to succeed.

  • Stewart | April 2, 2013 1:19 PMReply

    The economics the author subscribes to is dead. He's using the labor theory of value, which famously led Marx down his tragically wrong course that ultimately led to the murder or starvation of hundreds of millions.

    Value is subjective. An iPhone is more valuable to me than a bottle of water because I have plenty of water. Put me in the middle of the desert with nothing to drink and the equation changes. This is why most of the value in the world is created through exchange.

    It's good that the author notes that wealth inequality started skyrocketing in the 1970s. That's when the final vestiges of hard money were removed from America's currency system. The rich are getting richer because of our monetary policy. The Fed puts more money in the system via the financial sector. Rich people have much more access to that new money and they gobble it up.

  • Lucid | April 2, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    I doubt Drew Gardner is a communist, he is just confused about economics. Classical Marxist theory says that new value comes only comes from labor. Take land, add people, see how much food they produce. Now add capital, tractors, etc and they produce more with the same amount of labor. That new value came from capital. Now add knowledge, new ways to farm, production goes up again with same amount of labor. All inputs add value and all inputs, labor, capital etc can be over or underpaid.

  • Lucid | April 2, 2013 12:14 PMReply

    I doubt Drew Gardner is a communist, he is just confused about economics. Classical Marxist theory says that new value comes only comes from labor. Take land, add people, see how much food they produce. Now add capital, tractors, etc and they produce more with the same amount of labor. That new value came from capital. Now add knowledge, new ways to farm, production goes up again with same amount of labor. All inputs add value and all inputs, labor, capital etc can be over or underpaid.

  • D-man | April 2, 2013 11:55 AMReply

    "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."

    Karl Marx could not have said it better himself.

    Go back to North Korea. Commie.

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