Manufacturing consent in reality tv fan votes

Christian Patterson
2019-11-15
Underground Mall

Reality tv uses basic tools to influence fan votes. When you notice those tools, you notice similar patterns in political media.

When viewers get to vote in competitive reality shows, the vote is easy to predict. There are some basic strategies producers use to manipulate votes.

The single easiest and most obvious way producers fix these votes is simply by exposure. The more someone is on your screen, the more likely you are to vote for them. From there, it’s fairly easy to tweak someone into a villain or hero.

In this post, I’ll focus on the show Big Brother, and look at some more sophisticated ways producers manipulate votes. On competitive reality shows like American Idol, viewers vote on who wins, which seems harder to manipulate because people will vote for their faves. But on Big Brother, viewers vote to give contestants powers. Because of this, viewers vote strategically.

Before I get to Big Brother though, there’s a simple example from the American Love Island. This show used an obvious trick to influence votes: viewers voted on an app where you swiped through to vote. But since you’re swiping through, it was easy to accidentally vote for an early couple, and production ordered the couples with their favorites first.

This is an easy way to stack the deck unfairly. News media does this, for example when they hide Bernie Sanders in their coverage. This is the cable news version of placing Sanders at the end of the Love Island swipe list. The fact Amy Klobuchar’s polling has slightly gone up is a sign of mainstream news metaphorically placing her higher up on the Love Island swipe list, after they told America she “won” the last debate.


But Big Brother is more sophisticated about it. In Big Brother 20, they had three powers and three punishments in the first three weeks. America voted for several categories, and the person with the most votes received the power, and the least votes received the punishment.

Normally, America votes for who they want to win. But the voting categories were presented like yearbook superlatives: funniest, most annoying etc. They didn’t make it clear to the audience that whoever won the most votes, even if it was for a negative category, would win.

Most people voted for who they wanted to win, but the framers of the vote presented it as if they’re voting for specific categories, not for the overall best. This is similar to how the news tries to frame elections. They don’t want you to vote for the candidate you most want to win, because very few people want either republican or democrat to win. They want the election to be about something more specific – voting against one of the candidates instead of for the other, or voting for someone purely for what they symbolize, etc.

In Big Brother 21, there were two fan votes that had peculiar elements to them.

Imagine a season of the show, where most people hate the majority of the houseguests for being bullies, condescending, racist, misogynist etc.

Now, imagine a convoluted twist where America votes for three people to enter a competition. The winner of the competition wins immunity for the week, the loser becomes an automatic third nominee, and second place has to wear a costume (a non-gameplay punishment).

The producers chose to do this for a reason. They wanted it to be confusing. They knew that much of their cast was disliked, so they took a shotgun approach that could ideally blow the game open.

With that confusion, fans still recognized there was much more potential for bad in losing than potential for good in winning, so they voted for their least faves.

But this was even complicated in itself: one of the most hated houseguests had just been evicted, and one of his closest allies was Head of Household, making him ineligible.

So what happened is three of the five least liked houseguests were put into a competition, and one of them won a reward, and one received a punishment.

This is not unlike the way bourgeois political elections work. We’re told we have the final vote, and yet, the people we are allowed to vote for ae curated, on multiple levels by multiple people, before we ever got to vote.

And the result was, one of the most disliked houseguests got a power, and another disliked houseguest got a punishment (that ultimately didn’t impact her, and she carried on with basically the same agenda). Sounds like Democrats and Republicans after presidential elections right?

The last example I will use is “prankster” power that fans voted for in Big Brother 21, where someone was able to anonymously nominate one other houseguest.

In the previous episode, Christie, who people really didn’t like, got into a big fight with Nick, who people didn’t particularly like either.

People were expecting Nicole, the fan favorite, to be the prankster. However, Nick received it, much to the surprise of many online.

There are a couple reasons for this:

  1. Nick was heavily featured in the previous episode, which reinforces the idea that the amount of screen time = the amount of votes.
  2. People were really voting against Christie, and saw Nick as the best way to vote against her.

What we take away from this is that there are many structural elements that not only influence who wins elections, but how we conceptualize elections to begin with.

In the most basic sense, the amount of exposure someone gets influences their votes. The only reason Joe Biden dominated the early polling of the 2020 primary is because he’s the candidate who most people know the best.

But there’s more sophisticated techniques to restrict the scope of elections as well. The fact that we have to choose between two parties means that we’re never voting for who we actually want. The fact that elections are reduced to “strategic voting” – voting against candidates, and voting for candidates for indirect reasons – shows they votes are worked, by the political operative equivalent of “producers”.

Reducing of elections to “strategic voting” is enhanced by the fact that political media can manipulate voting parameters even further. For example, when Nick won the prankster power, it was not because he was well-liked, it was because we knew he would go after Christie. Similarly, when centrist media is constantly browbeating democrats to stay centrist, they make appeals to “electability”. They want to back us into a corner where we have to vote for someone we don’t like in order to beat someone we also don’t like.

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