The Next Hit Reality Show

July 25, 2005

Memo

To: Tom Werner, executive producer, The Scholar
From: Donald E. Heller
Subject: Capitalizing on the success of The Scholar

I know you’ve been really busy with The Scholar, which I hear has had some great ratings.  Never mind all your work with the Red Sox – by the way, great to have a hit after 86 years of failure, huh? – and your on again, off again relationship with Katie Couric. But I hope you have a few minutes to review this work-up for what I am convinced is the next hit reality show: The Chosen One.

Everybody has loved watching the competition to see which of those spunky little 18 year-olds on The Scholar is going to receive the scholarship. But those kids are so bright and overachieving that the audience knows that all of them, not just the winner, will end up going to college somewhere. But think about how much more interesting the competition will be as graduate students battle it out for the holy grail of American higher education: a tenure-track faculty position! With so few graduating Ph.D.’s landing one of these babies, the competition in this reality show will make Survivor look like a walk in the park.

Here’s the outline of the show. I’ve indicated a few places where there are some great product placement opportunities (PPO) to help maximize the revenue from the show.

The Search Committee: Every good reality show needs a panel of judges that will grab the audience. After all, people don’t watch American Idol to hear talentless people sing; they tune in to see Paula bicker with Simon. This is what’s keeping The Scholar from knocking Idol off the top of the charts. The judges on The Scholar are knowledgeable, but they’ve got the collective personality of a medieval history conference.  

Here are a few ideas to kick around.  For the lead, there’s only one obvious choice: Lawrence "Larry the Barbarian" Summers. He's received more press lately than anybody in higher education other than Ward Churchill (my guys talked to Ward, but he’s laying low these days and wasn’t interested). And who’s better at playing the Simon role, insulting people and putting them in their place? Larry’s got to be the top dog in this show. It shouldn’t matter how much money it takes to land him -- you have to get him on board.  (PPO: Rather than the ubiquitous can of Coke on Idol, I see Larry with a bottle of Chardonnay in front of him -- lots of opportunities to get a vineyard on board.)

To create fireworks, you need somebody who will clash with Larry. Again, there’s a clear choice: Cornel West, Larry’s old nemesis from Harvard who flew the coop to Princeton after one too many insults. The idea of Larry and Cornel (can we get him to use the nickname “Corny” -- “Cornel” sounds a bit stuffy for a mass audience?) going at each other from opposite sides of the table has me salivating about the ratings potential.

The third judge isn’t nearly as important (who can ever remember Randy Jackson anyway), but I do have a few ideas. Stanley Fish looked like he would be tanned, rested, and available after he retired from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and who knows more about higher education than him? But then he took that position in Florida so he may be out. Skip Gates is another good choice, but that may make it look like he and Corny are ganging up on Larry. Might want to go after Elaine Showalter; she’s not nearly the household name the others are, but boy, can she dress! (Great PPO opportunities with her -- Prada or Versace?)

The Candidates: This is a little bit tricky. Ten students should work -- this is about the right ratio of Ph.D. graduates for every tenure track position available, and will ensure enough candidates to appeal to a broad audience. You need that combination of attractive looks and engaging personalities to keep the viewers coming back week after week. Need to avoid that library pallor so many graduate students share, so we’ll have to do a national search to find the cute ones with the bubbly personalities. (PPO: We’ll want to make sure they’re dressed well, so let’s talk to The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, maybe even Polo for the interview clothes.)

Diversity is important – every viewer wants to be able to connect with at least one of the candidates. So let’s make sure we get a good selection of people from different races and different parts of the country. And let’s make sure they’re not all from Ivy League colleges – it’s important for the world to see that there are smart people at other places too -- I’m having some people confirm this for me.  (PPO: Maybe there’s an opportunity here for a second-rung institution to “sponsor” one of their grad students into the competition. I can see somebody wearing a “Northwestern East Podunk University” sweatshirt -- institutions like that normally can’t buy that kind of publicity!)

We need to be careful about what disciplines the candidates come from, or we’ll lose our audience. While everybody likes the idea of a rocket scientist, nobody wants to watch them writing physics equations on a whiteboard (yes, I know it worked in Good Will Hunting, but they had Matt Damon and Ben Afleck). If we have an English student, at the first mention of Foucault people would be flipping the channel to Bill Frist on C-SPAN or Rachel Ray making green bean casserole on the Food Channel.

Everybody watching The Scholar has liked that the contestants share dorm rooms, so let’s have all 10 of the grad students share a house, sort of like on The Real World. (PPO: this is a no-brainer – Ikea!)

The Episodes: The episodes should be reflective of the typical career of a grad student, and give the judges the opportunity to assess their potential to be a faculty member. Nobody would want to sit through the life of a Ph.D. student in real time however, so we’ll collapse the normal seven year period into seven weeks of television. Here is a first cut at the episode list.

1. Meet the grad students. The audience gets to meet each student and choose favorites.  Students get a chance to introduce themselves, explain why they’re unique, and why they should be The Chosen One.

2. The students deflect a sexual advance from a tenured faculty member. This is an important milestone in graduate student life. To keep it interesting, we can throw in at least one same-sex harassment situation (we need to remember this as we cast the show). It is unlikely we will be able to hire real professors for this, but with all the out-of-work professors out there, some of them must have had some experience in this arena. (PPO: a law firm?)

3. Organize a TA union. What a great opportunity for conflict between the grad students and the judges! The grad students will be required to build the case for why they should be allowed to unionize, and the judges will test them by explaining why grad students do not do real work and should be considered students, not workers. (PPO: United Auto Workers or The Teamsters?)

4. Cobble together funds to attend a conference and network with academic stars. The grad students will run around the campus to various offices to beg, borrow, and steal the money necessary to attend an academic conference in order to schmooze with the big shots. They will then have to demonstrate how they can spend three days in a major city on a paltry sum, and still look presentable and impress the stars. Great opportunity here for cameos from some real academic stars.  I’m sure most would jump at the opportunity and work for union scale.  (PPO: airlines and hotels)

5. Form a dissertation committee. The grad students go in front of the judges and explain why they are worthy of having a faculty member serve on their dissertation committee. Each judge will require the students to jump through the requisite academic "hoops," such as babysitting the judge’s children, walking the judge’s dog, or picking up their dry cleaning.  Every good reality show has a weeding-out process. This episode is where we can reduce the 10 candidates down to a smaller number, as those who are unable to form a dissertation committee are cast aside.

6. The job talk. The candidates explain their research and why they’re worth of being The Chosen One. As I mentioned earlier, it is critical that we find grad students with interests that reach a wide audience. Let’s look for somebody in sociology who researches the interlocking sexual and economic relationships among suburban, upper middle class housewives. Or a criminology student who specializes in homicides among young, beautiful women who live in major urban areas with attractive friends and interesting jobs.

7. The selection. At long last, the judges choose the single graduate student who will be The Chosen One. The winner will be awarded a tenure-track job in their field at the institution of their choice. We may have some problems getting every college and university out there to agree to participate, but given the revenue constraints they’re all facing, throwing some of the PPO money their way should be enough of an inducement.

I think this one is a winner, Tom, so let’s do lunch and work it out!

Bio

Donald E. Heller is an associate professor and senior research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. The only reality show he is watching this summer is the Boston Red Sox.

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