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Job Grab

Reality TV as career counselor?

By Traci Vogel

ON REALITY TV, a good spouse is a trophy. Eating bugs can fetch a million dollars. And a celebrity's flagging career can be reinvigorated if he or she will just spend a month or so living with Eric Estrada.

Regardless of what these propped-up plot lines say about our proclivity for self-punishment as a viewing audience, the latest trend in reality TV shows trumps all that, literally. Donald Trump's The Apprentice pits ambitious businesspeople against one another in a contest for their "dream job": a position with the Trump Organization worth $250,000 a year.

Each week, teams of contestants claw each other in entrepreneurially symbolic competitions such as selling lemonade and designing ad campaigns. At the end of each show, the team chooses the most glaring laggard and sends the pathetic loser to Donald's boardroom, where the poor chump awaits the dreaded words: "You're fired."

The Apprentice is merely the most obvious of the reality shows that center around employment. There's also America's Next Top Model, in which a gaggle of women compete for the stratospheric position of supermodel. The models are forced into such machinations as posing underwater while holding their breath, posing while suspended in harnesses 10 stories off the ground and hawking beauty products in an impromptu sales pitch. Their personal phone calls are tapped, and their morning ablutions are televised.

Then there's American Idol, in which everybody's dream job--rock star--becomes the motivation for hundreds of celebrity wannabes to humiliate themselves by singing on TV when they should be singing in the shower.

These shows are really nothing more than drawn-out, very public job interviews--and they're hugely popular. In the midst of a jobless economic "recovery," it seems we can derive comfort from watching other people squirm for employment. Does this say something ominous about the venality of voyeurism or just something ominous about the economy? When a job is a prize, can a national lottery for health insurance be far behind? Or perhaps we will soon be rewarding college entrance only to those who succeed on Jeopardy?

The country of Argentina is way ahead of us on this curve. At the end of 2002, when Argentine's unemployment rate reached 21.5 percent, a TV game show called Recursos Humanos (Human Resources) debuted to record-high ratings. On the show, two candidates compete for a job by undergoing a series of quizzes and interviews. But mere standard skill sets are not all that's required--the candidates must also appeal to the viewing audience by presenting their dramatic tales of unemployment and family hardship. And these are no $250,000-a-year Trump jobs being offered--these are blue-collar positions such as mechanic or waitress. The winner receives a yearlong contract, and the runner-up wins health insurance coverage for six months.

According to Variety, Sony Pictures Television International snapped up international rights to the show, although the company has not announced any plans for production. Perhaps it is still waiting for to see how jobless our jobless recovery becomes.

Indeed, Argentina has also been very innovative in using reality TV as a political process--for its 2003 congressional elections, a Buenos Aires TV channel launched a show called The People's Candidate, offering as the prize to the winner the chance to represent a new political party. A BBC South America commentator explained the show's appeal by saying, "Public disenchantment with the current stock of politicians is now so low that the most common chant at anti-government rallies is 'All of Them Out.'"

Naw, couldn't happen here.

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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