Want to see the American lust for competition? Look at TV 

As president of the American Business Council, I am often asked to comment about whether America has “lost its competitive edge.” It makes me wonder whether any of these doubters ever watch reality TV?

Reality TV is all about competition. The trend began with “Survivor,” where people compete in challenges on some remote, tropical place. Each week, laggards are eliminated by vote of the participants, a winnowing process involving shifting voting cartels that in the business world would not survive Federal Trade Commission scrutiny.  

Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” transferred the “Survivor” formula directly into the business world. Again, backstabbing was not unknown, although Trump usually saw through any machinations. Since the days of the “Original Amateur Hour,” show business has been a natural for competition. Today, we have “American Idol,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance?” “The Voice” and so forth. Contestants on these shows are first judged by a panel of experts. But the final choice is made by viewers voting over the telephone. Thus, the market picks the winners.

Similar shows on different topics abound. HGTV has “The All-American Handyman,” The Food Network and other channels are loaded with cooking competitions. Perhaps as a result, weight-loss competitions such as “The Biggest Loser” are also aired.

I do not suggest this trend is exclusively American or entirely new. We had game shows when I was growing up and, of course, sports, although, significantly, nothing like fantasy football, which allows ordinary fans to use NFL player statistics to compete against one another.

What is impressive and new here is the remarkable amount of competition programming on American television today. Undoubtedly these shows are trivial. But they reflect other developments such as the growth of entrepreneurial studies in our business schools. Years ago, everyone at business school wanted to work on Wall Street, at McKinsey and then at Goldman Sachs. Today, many strive to be entrepreneurs, the ultimate competitive warriors.

Beyond suggesting a serious rethink about how much television I watch, the true conclusion here is that Americans like competition. Americans want to compete themselves. Americans want to win.

This may not be evident to many in the federal government. Here, regulators don’t want anyone to lose and that insures no one really wins. On Capitol Hill, the advantages of incumbency and the pervasiveness of gerrymandering in the House means that most members of Congress do not face serious races for their seats.

Meantime, retaining the presidency is largely a matter of raising a remarkable amount of money and using that money for media buys in key markets that effectively mitigate the rigors of competition. When was the last time you saw a really competitive political debate?

Regulatory overreach from Washington is interfering with America’s competitive drive, but the American competitive instinct is just as sharp as ever.

John Endean is president of the American Business Council.

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John Endean

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