Commentary: Polarizing Politics and The Amazing Race

Recently, fans of The Amazing Race online were discussing possible future locations for the series. Especially as the series is still struggling to hold on for dear life. (Though in a slightly less precarious situation now than a few months ago.)

And one long wished-for destination (and one of the few Amazing Race-producing countries in the world), Israel, was mentioned. Almost immediately several fans expressed everything from hesitation to downright abhorrence. The reason being the complex and decades-long political and social quagmire that has only gotten much more heated in even just the last few weeks.

Even before Donald Trump was sworn in as president, views on Israel, Palestine and the entire conflict drew a wide range of reactions and sentiment. Particularly, a stark and divisive view on Israel as a country. Some remarked that the mere mention of Israel, let alone having a Leg or two of the Race staged there would turn off a large portion of Amazing Race viewers. The assumption being that most Amazing Race fans are anti-Israel or pro-Palestine and would be so angered that they would boycott the series at a time when The Amazing Race needs every single possible viewer it can get.

But that got me thinking. Over 30 seasons of The Amazing Race, I don’t ever remember Bertram van Munster and Co. deciding on which countries to visit based on whether or not viewers may be turned on or off by their choices. That is, The Amazing Race hasn’t avoided countries based on possible viewer sentiment. On the contrary, ensuring Americans can safely run around the country or the amount of benefits and incentives the local tourism board can offer seem to be the most important factors in throwing together an Amazing route.

At the same time, I began to vaguely remember articles about television show preferences based on political affiliation and how The Amazing Race had been mentioned in those articles. Sure enough, at least three separate studies, each two years apart and at a time when the show was much more popular than it is now, found that The Amazing Race is a favorite of right-leaning viewers.

In 2010, Experian Simmons examined the political party registrations of viewers of over 700 television programs in their National Consumer study.
Republicans were 32% more likely to watch The Amazing Race than the average American adult. And it was also the highest indexing television program for Republicans, broadcast or cable. The study also found Republicans gravitated more toward reality competition series like American Idol or America’s Got Talent and Survivor. Democrats trended toward “observational” reality shows where they get to “peer into the lives of celebrities or unique and extraordinary people” such as Wife Swap, Who Do You Think You Are? and Big Brother.

In 2012, a study assembled by TiVo Research and Analytics found similar results. Not one network show appeared on both Democrat and Republican lists. And again, the Republican list of shows featured several reality competition programs, including The Amazing Race

And in 2014, Entertainment Weekly teamed with Experian to find Republicans still preferred The Amazing Race more than Democrats.

Those are fascinating findings and I only wish the studies went a little more in-depth. Though I know that they were all basic and simple peeks into consumer habits and not a deep dive into any specific data.

But those results weren’t and aren’t that surprising to me.

Looking at the electoral map from the 2016 presidential election, much of the country is painted red.

Disregarding population density and all that, the simple fact is that middle America clearly leans right.

A superficial glance at the people making comments on The Amazing Race‘s Facebook page shows that many, if not most are white Americans.

Now, I am a big Amazing Race fan. Maybe not as much today as I once was. But still a Race fan nonetheless. And I’m certainly not a white American. And I definitely live nowhere near middle America. I’m an American born son of Filipino immigrants who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I’m also a registered Republican. But that brings us to the one of the main points of my commentary today. It’s usually good to avoid generalizing. And this applies to most everything in life, not just politics or debating the audience of a reality show.

If I were to put together a general profile of a regular Amazing Race television viewer, I’d say a good majority of the audience were older, middle class Americans living in the midwest.

Lower 18-49 demo numbers with higher total viewer numbers show that the show attracts either an older or younger audience. (Family program indeed.)

Though a 2014 report from Nielsen showed The Amazing Race was one of the highest indexing shows for households earning more than $150k a year.

Another generalization would be the so-called “coastal elites,” usually more left-leaning, not favoring any reality shows, even one like The Amazing Race. The Emmys are just one (annual!) example of the outward expression by the “Hollywood elite” of how low they regard any reality shows. The Reality-Competition Program category is usually treated like a forced exercise and like a sideshow of a joke in an otherwise “prestigious” night. And this is despite The Amazing Race having many high-profile celebrity fans. As well as the nominees for the category (mostly unchanged over the course of its existence) being the least offensive reality shows on television.

But the perception is The Amazing Race is just another reality show. Comparable to the other, buzzier and maybe lower brow reality shows that populate now almost every network on television. All “guilty pleasures” rather than “quality programming.”

It’s always fascinating whenver The Apprentice is brought up when discussing now-President Donald Trump. It’s usually always only the Celebrity Apprentice seasons and not the original seasons which people now conveniently forget or refuse to acknowledge were universally acclaimed, NBC’s most watched show and Emmy-nominated. (A bitter Donald Trump also famously trashed The Amazing Race for winning yet another Emmy over the then-highly rated and acclaimed Apprentice.)

But that’s the connotation that all reality programs have. Cheap, unsophisticated, for the masses or middle class.

The Philippines calls this pang-masa, for the masses. That is, not for the rich elites, also called Class AB. Class C would be around upper middle class. Class D would be greater majority of the population in the middle class and Class E would be poor which is sadly also a large number in the Philippines. But the general (there’s that word again!) perception is that Class C and D are people who eat at fast food chains over even sit-down, casual restaurants. Or people who shop at flea markets over high-end malls in the country’s business districts.

Television shows that are pang-masa tend to be variety shows or game shows, especially noontime shows where prizes are involved. Celebrities that are pang-masa are ones who don’t mind mingling with the people, that is their fans who are likely not as wealthy as they are. That’s versus celebrities who have no qualms about posting about their latest expensive purchase or fancy vacation. Even speaking Filipino vs English is a distinction between the rich elite or the middle class.

In the United States, socioeconomic classes are a little more close to each other than the Philippines’ spread. But reality shows, even ones like The Amazing Race, are still looked down upon by self-perceived intellectuals or cultured entertainment consumers. That those kinds of programs are undesirable. Dare I say, “deplorable”?

And that again brings me back to the discussion of politics and the preferences of a typical Amazing Race viewer. As I pointed out above and based on the findings, The Amazing Race seems to appeal more to Republicans than Democrats.

But why is that?

What are the basic qualities of The Amazing Race that might appeal to any viewer? Fun and exciting competition? A beautiful travelogue around the world? A usually diverse cast of characters meeting an even more diverse world through the peoples, the cultures and the locations they travel to over the course of a Race?

Those are all great qualities and qualities that I feel are universally appealing.

I was struck by something Race host Phil Keoghan (and I believe even executive producers Bertram van Munster and Elise Doganieri) repeated in his various interviews leading up to the premiere of season 29. Paraphrasing his sentiment, he basically said The Amazing Race was a show that was relevant and needed more than ever because of the divisive and very political climate in the United States.

In one interview, Phil said: “We cannot lock ourselves away and tuck ourselves away and become more and more divided and divisive with each other. We really have got to create dialogue and to travel and to push back against those types of evils, and not let them take control, because that’s exactly what they [evil people] want.”

It is safe to assume he was referring to a need to counter possibly racist and xenophobic rhetoric coming from President Trump and his supporters. And the greater perception that is usually used is that all Republicans or even simply all conservatives share whatever racist, bigoted and xenophobic rhetoric that may come from Trump and the far, or so-called “alt-right.”

That a show like The Amazing Race which exposes a viewer to different cultures, traditions, socieities, people, countries and more is just what America needs. Needs to cleanse itself of the loud, racist fringes that crept into the mainstream.

That maybe Donald Trump supporters (in the midwest? At least, according to the electoral map.) need to watch The Amazing Race to be enlightened and to open their minds to become more accepting of “the other.” That is, people from other countries, other cultures, other religions and ways of life.

Some say The Amazing Race visiting Israel would alienate a large portion of the show’s already small audience. I say comments that infer something like Phil’s or Friday Night Lights executive producer Peter Berg are actually more polarizing and can alienate more people.

That their words can be interpreted in such a way as to single out swaths of your potential or current audience is problematic as it is. They present assumptions that may not have been intended, but are clearly there.

And they are comments that include generalizations that undermine what should be universally appealing qualities the shows may already have. Why try to disregard present consumers?

A shallow and weak theory would be The Amazing Race wouldn’t appeal to Republicans because Republicans are so xenophobic and racist and afraid of “the other,” they would hate seeing non-white people from poor “shithole” countries on their televisions (or computers or mobile device). They wouldn’t care to see Africans or Asians or Latin Americans featured on their little reality show.

But let’s remember, this is the same Amazing Race audience that were up in arms and threatened to quit the show when season 8’s Family Edition barely left the United States.

It is interesting to point out that The Amazing Race Canada has received more accusations of being, at most, xenophobic (at the very least, obsessively patriotic) than the American flagship. Season finales have the host and contestants proudly proclaiming “You don’t need to travel somewhere else!” because there’s nowhere better than good ol’ Canada.

If American Race viewers get upset when the show doesn’t leave the United States, then you have Canadian fans of The Amazing Race Canada absolutely apoplectic when the series dares travel outside the country. The outrage when season 2 of The Amazing Race Canada traveled to Hong Kong and Macau (the first international destinations ever for the Canadian franchise) was just shocking. But it would only be the beginning as any international destinations drew ire from fans and the series would continue its overly patriotic presentation of all things Canada. (Even when they actually did travel out of Canada.)

But bringing it back to The Amazing Race‘s American mothership and the reason I’ve done this term paper of a commentary.

Would The Amazing Race lose a huge chunk of their audience and suffer a boycott if the series ever decided to stage a Leg or two in Israel? Considering the four-year-old data, I actually think The Amazing Race‘s remaining loyal audience would proabably love an Israeli visit. But that’s beside the point I’m hoping to make here.

In 2013, there was the huge uproar over The Amazing Race visiting Vietnam and what was perceived to be disrespect toward Vietnam veterans during that Leg. Back then, I wrote about “What The Amazing Race Has Meant to Me”.

The Amazing Race had been accused of being liberal garbage and promoting communist propaganda. In my post, I pointed out that on the contrary, The Amazing Race had taken care in each of their Vietnam visits to honor those brave Americans who had sacrificed so much during the war.

Now, Amazing Race viewers had not complained about previous visits to Vietnam. And the criticism during season 22 was not that the show stepped foot in Vietnam, but that the wreckage of a B-52 was used as a mere set piece in the background. And also the broadcast of a propaganda song performance was somehow an endorsement of communism and socialism by the show and CBS.

In today’s divided United States, people would probably be shocked and upset if The Amazing Race visited Russia for the first time since season 21. That’s just how society is today. Quite unfortunately, if I may add.

But again, it wasn’t and shouldn’t be a surprise that The Amazing Race is more appealing to Republicans than Democrats. That is in spite of The Amazing Race being pretty universal in its themes and competition.

I do believe The Amazing Race has a diverse audience and fanbase, even if Republican-leaning viewers are more inclined to it.

Simply put though, it is hard and never a good idea to generalize. Especially generalize an audience when there are financial consequences to doing do. It is very possible for something to be appealing to a large, wide audience, regardless of political party or any other demographic group you can think of.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to appeal to a wider audience. Though there is something wrong with not wanting to be open to seeing different people and places, cultures and societies. And after 17 years and 30 seasons, I don’t think people who tune into The Amazing Race look to be offended by seeing different people, pleaces, cultures and societies.

They are probably more offended by the current state of the show. But that’s a whole other discussion for another time.

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