I am fascinated by reality TV. I love the cheesy gimmicks and the faux competitions. What is better than seeing alliances made and betrayed, secrets kept by shouting them out? I can’t get enough of the building tension as one contestant after another is sent home, banished, excommunicated, forever branded a loser.
I have studied reality TV. I know reality TV.
There are the Bachelor shows: the eligible good-looking dude chooses his babe; the eligible good-looking babe chooses her hottie. Then there is the twist: the big fat dude who has a skiddillion dollars chooses his babe. And the twist on the twist: the big fat dude who is supposed to have a skiddillion dollars doesn’t actually have any, so the babes he has been romancing are mortified when they find out that he is poor as well as disgusting and they have drooled over him on national TV for nothing.
And there are the warrior shows. The tribes left in the arctic, in the forest, in the swamp, in the desert. Always eating the same sickening bugs that you find in the arctic, the forest, the swamp, the desert. And for a twist, a whole show where people have to confront their fear of bugs, by, well, eating them, as by if swallowing gooey white maggoty writhing slithery slimy pustule coated grubs they’ll be better men or better women, not just sick to their chiseled stomachs.
And the quiz shows. For quiz shows you get the best excitement if the money keeps increasing until the contestants have so much that it is hideous and sickening when they lose and all their winnings are forfeit. Who doesn’t love that moment when it all comes crashing down?
While many think that reality programming began with The Real World and Survivor, the first reality television program was a daytime show from the ’50s called Queen for a Day. In that show, three or four contestants – I believe they were always women, which makes sense given the name of the show – competed to present stories of hardship to a live studio audience. Each contestant would regale the audience with the difficulties that she and her family had suffered: children with incurable diseases, job loss, bankruptcy, disfigurement, injuries too numerous to recall, failed marriages, parents sick and dying, you name it, the whole panoply of human pain and hardship.
Each contestant was given a block of time to tell her story. There was a host – a smarmy fellow named Jack Bailey – who helped the contestant choke out her tale of woe. Bailey was known for his solicitousness. He was quick with a white handkerchief when tears appeared. A fine Wikipedia article on the show describes his approach beautifully:
Bailey began each interview gently, asking the contestant first about her life and family, and maintaining a positive and upbeat response no matter what she told him. For instance, when a woman said she had a crippled child, he would ask if her second child was “Okay.” On learning that the second child was not crippled, he might say, “Well, that’s good, you have one healthy child.”
After each contestant had said their piece, the audience actually voted which of them had told the most piteous tale. As I remember it, though it was a long time ago and my recollection could be faulty, the voting was conducted by applause. Here is the scene: at the end of each show, all the contestants joined Jack Bailey on stage. He lined them up so they faced the audience. Then he approached the first and held his hand, palm down, over her head as if he were measuring her height. Signaled by that gesture, the audience applauded, and the intensity of the applause signified the degree of hardship that the contestant had endured. The more applause, the sadder the story. Bailey then moved to the next contestant and repeated the process.
There was a device – I swear this is true – called an “Applause-O-Meter” that purported to calibrate the level of applause each contestant received. The contestant with the highest score on the Applause-O-Meter – in other words, the contestant judged to have endured the greatest misery – became Queen For A Day!
The crowning moment in each show was the crowning of the Queen. After the Applause-O-Meter had done its magic, a queenly robe, the kind with velvet and tufts of furry trim on the edges, appeared and was draped lovingly on her shoulders. The robes were drenched in royal red. The Queen then gentled herself into the luxurious comfort of a much-pillowed throne. A tiara – actually a full-on crown – was placed on her head. Her arms were filled with four dozen “coronation roses”.
And then there were the prizes! The prizes were not usually things that would alleviate, at least very directly, the suffering that had lead to the coronation. They were better! The prizes were toasters, dishwashers, sometimes a jeweled watch, always a washing machine, and a year’s or a lifetime’s supply of household cleaners. Items for the laundry and the kitchen! The sort of things that a Queen would need after the magical day had run its dizzying course.
There was a lot of weeping on Queen for A Day. The contestants wept as they told of their difficult circumstances. The audience wept as they leaned in to hear of the contestants’ difficult circumstances. And, there were tears, for sure, when one lucky – well, unlucky – contestant was selected to receive the amazing gifts and prizes.
For all the weeping, Queen for the Day was a popular show. According to my research, the show was aired on radio and then television for 17 years – from 1947 through 1964. And thereafter, there were several, largely unsuccessful, attempts to revive the show. Indeed, those efforts continue to this day. As recently as 2011, a hustler with the difficult name of Michael Worstman, a former executive and producer with various entertainment enterprises, was trying to bring QFD to today’s audiences. He built a website devoted to promoting the concept. The site makes a strong case for the return of QFD. According to Mr. Worstman,
As a brand, Queen for a Day has worldwide recognition, stature, and historical significance and is ideal for advertisers who desire to strongly connect with consumers. Queen For A Day is a relevant and seamless way to integrate appropriate lifestyle products into the show in support of ad campaigns and product launches. Consumers who see others becoming excited about a product or service can stimulate a desire to want it too. And in some cases, the gifts contestants receive can be life-changing. And that’s powerful…
I want to support the case for bringing back Queen for a Day. I love a good reality show – the cheesier the better as far as I am concerned – but I can’t do it. I can’t stomach the fact that some of the contestants lost. Sure they got consolation prizes, but how pathetic to have appeared in supplication before a national television audience parading your family’s pain and misery for all to wallow in, only to be judged by a jury of your peers not to have had it bad enough to merit the title of Queen for the Day. That was harsh.
I know, I know. This is real life; there is too much anguish out there. There just aren’t enough kitchen gadgets to assuage it all. That’s probably why the host ended each show with a bit of wistfulness: “This is Jack Bailey, wishing we could make every woman a queen, for every single day…” But I am sorry. That was the problem with Queen For A Day; they did not understand that reality TV shouldn’t be too real.