Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You (a brilliant book that I find myself referring to constantly) is subtitled "How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," and one of the examples he cites is (gasp!) reality television:
The conventional wisdom is that audiences flock to reality programming because they enjoy the prurient sight of other people being humiliated on national TV... But for the most successful reality shows--Survivor or The Apprentice--the appeal is more sophisticated...
As each show discloses its conventions, and each participant reveals his or her personality traits and background, the intrigue in watching comes from figuring out how the participants should best navigate the environment that's been created for them. The pleasure in these shows comes not from watching other human beings humilated on national television; it comes from depositing other human beings in a complex, high-stakes environment where no established strategies exist, and watching them find their bearings. That's why the water-cooler conversation about these shows invariably tracks in on the strategy displayed on the previous night's episode...
Bingo. And today there's a flavor of reality programming to fit every cultural palate, from lowbrow, gross-out/thrill-seeking shows like Fear Factor and schadenfraude-fests like Blind Date, to the quasi-educational, historical-fish-out-of-water series like Texas Ranch House that have become a staple on public television.
I love shows like Texas Ranch House, and Johnson zeroes in on their primary appeal: second-guessing the participants' strategic choices in a complicated social environment. I've often thought these shows could serve as management training tools by providing engaging examples of successful (and not-so-successful) interpersonal techniques.
Texas Ranch House (currently halfway through its eight-episode run on PBS) is a textbook case in this regard. The ranch "owner," real-life San Francisco hospital administrator Bill Cooke, may yet succeed in rounding up and selling enough cattle to insure the ranch's survival, but at this point things aren't looking good, in no small part because of Cooke's missteps as a manager.
Cooke's cowboys think he's putting his family's creature comforts ahead of their professional needs and that his submissive attitude toward his wife is jeopardizing the ranch's future. At the same time, Cooke's wife thinks the cowboys are exploiting her husband's desire to be liked and that their complaints are fueled by sexism and petty resentments. Even Cooke's daughters are unhappy and want to go home. The guy's in a tight spot, and I find it impossible to tear myself away--not because I'm enjoying Cooke's difficulties, but because I keep thinking to myself (or actually yelling at the screen), "Why didn't you do [this or that] instead?!?"
But I'm not just venting and feeling superior--I'm actually taking away some valuable insights. Cooke's fundamental problem is that although his natural management style is conciliatory and team-oriented, he never invested the time and energy required to forge his family and his cowboys into a united team. Instead, they've split into two competing tribes, with him caught in the middle. He can't choose one group over the other, and in any event he lacks the force and authority to compel one group to submit to his will. But neither can he effectively ask either group to make necessary compromises, because they feel little allegiance to the team as a whole or to him as their leader. (Of course, it doesn't help that his style of delivering bad news is reminiscent of Office Space's Bill Lumberg [sound clip].) They may be negative lessons, but there's a lot to learn in there.
Returning to "Everything Bad Is Good For You," Johnson makes the link between our interest in reality television and our professional environments even more explicit:
Reality shows...challenge our emotional intelligence... They are, in a sense, elaborately staged group psychology experiments... The shows seem so fresh to today's audience because they tap this crucial faculty of the mind in ways that ordinary dramas or comedies rarely do--borrowing the participatory format of the game show while simultaneously challenging our emotional IQ.
...[C]ountless studies have demonstrated the pivotal role that emotional intelligence plays in seemingly high-minded professions: business, law, politics. Any profession that involves regular interaction with other people will place a high premium on mind reading and emotional IQ. Of all the media available to us today, television is uniquely suited for conveying the fine gradients of these social skills... Reality programming has simply recognized that intrinsic strength and built a whole genre around it.
The management training field is full of stultifying, poorly produced videos and other training tools intended to represent real-life situations. Why not substitute highly engaging reality programming instead? PBS programs like Texas Ranch House have lesson plans for teachers that cover topics such as cattle drives and 19th century music at a middle school level. It would be a snap to develop some materials for grown-ups that cover topics such as leadership, team-building and conflict resolution. You know, I'm only half-joking.