It all started with Survivor. Then came American Idol, followed by The Bachelor, The Apprentice, Top Chef, So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the list goes on and on….It seems like we now have a competitive reality show for nearly every activity imaginable.

In fact, we have so many competitive reality shows these days that producers have introduced a new layer: competition within the competition. So, instead of just America’s Next Top Model we have The Face, which pits the supermodels’ contestants against one another so that the stars are competing against each other too. Ditto for The Voice, The Taste, Fashion Star, and Ready for Love—all shows that make use of a celebrity or expert to guide contestants, while competing against the other celebrities via their competitors’ performances (think Usher versus Shakira, Anthony Bourdain versus Nigella Lawson, and Jessica Simpson versus Nicole Richie by proxy).

This evolution toward more and more competition in some ways seems inevitable. When competitive reality shows premiered at the turn of the century media scholars like Henry Jenkins argued that they were examples of media convergence—the intersections of old and new media. American Idol in particular showed how interactive an audience could be.

Since then we’ve been introduced to technology that facilitates even more interactivity, like Facebook and Twitter. It’s rare to watch even a scripted network show these days without a Twitter hashtag appearing somewhere on the screen. As intersections continue to grow the trend is to want more of everything, including competition.

Of course these shows have always featured mini-competitions within the competition. In Reality Bites Back journalist Jennifer Pozner details how contestants on these shows compete socially and fight with one another, especially the women. But the addition of the macro-level organized competition, complete with the “professional/expert” label, is a previously unexplored and unidentified angle that takes us one step closer to seeing every interaction as producing a winner and a loser.

As General George Patton famously observed, Americans love winners and hate losers. So it’s no surprise that the general public craves even more competition and even more winners these days. In researching my forthcoming book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, I examined a variety of extreme competitions in the United States. I found that on top of the tendency to make everything competitive, Americans also like to do everything big.

In a book on competitive eating competitions Jason Fagone wrote, “[America is] different because we have more of it, more types of contests in more places. We do it broader and bigger, and unlike the British, the French, and the Germans . . . we make no apologies.” To Fagone’s point, while both Survivor and American Idol are based on shows originally conceived of and aired in Europe, it’s America that has created the competition-within-a-competition shows, like The Voice.

So is it only a matter of time before we get a real-life Hunger Games? Don’t forget that in the series each tribute’s mentors are also competing for money and attention. Some complained about the do-or-die televised competition aimed at children in The Hunger Games books and movie; at the same time children today face more diverse types of competition than ever before, while also being pressured to perform at high levels and break records.

The message that you never want to stop striving to improve, even when you are very successful, can be good; the message that each event in life is an opportunity to beat someone else for (another) turn in the spotlight isn’t as positive. Next time you turn on a show like The Voice, think about what these competition-within-a-competition reality shows are telling our kids and what they say about our ever more competitive American society.

And then think about Katniss competing on The Bachelor. The way things are going, it could happen.

About the Author

Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D.

Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D., is a Harvard sociologist and expert on popular culture, competition, childhood and parenting.

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