Primarily, these types of shows play into the basic myths of American culture and strike a chord with us that make them more compelling to watch. The idea of the American dream is bred into all of us at a very young age. Who of us wasn’t told as a 1st grader that we too could become president someday? That anyone can make it in America with a little hard work and some determination? These shows play on that underlying societal belief by, seemingly, picking average young people out of random cities and towns across America and giving them a platform to show off their heretofore unknown talents, thus bestowing fame and fortune on them. The fact that America loves an underdog also goads us into rooting for “average” people against all odds to accomplish their dreams. These shows personify our desire to live the American dream and make us want to do amazing things as well. It doesn’t hurt that these shows are also celebrity factories.
Every one of us has some part inside us that wants to be a star. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame for doing what appears to be very little work. These shows play up the myth that “anyone” can find undiscovered talent within themselves. The producers systematically downplay the training and years of hard work that many of the winners have put into their talents or profession so as to make contestants appear more “normal” and appeal to a broader audience. Seemingly, the contestants show up out of nowhere and all of a sudden blow the judges away with their amazing abilities. Yes, you too could be president someday; you just have to try hard enough or want it bad enough.
Compounded with the American dream mythos and the “anyone can do it” simplicity of the competitions, many of these shows require our emotional investment through voting for our favorites each week. Beyond simply rooting for a winner, voting takes viewer engagement to a whole new level by making each competition personal. Parasocial is the term coined by social scientists in the 50′s to describe one-sided relationships that require no reciprocation. While applicable to many types of atypical interpersonal relationships (stalking, imaginary friends) the term is most often used to describe a personal, emotional investment in the lives of celebrities and TV characters.
When you vote for a contestant and that contestant wins, you feel that that victory is partially yours. And when they fail, you feel a personal loss. It’s not dissimilar to the loyalty and attachment you may feel to your college football team even though you had absolutely no hand in contributing to their triumphs or failures. This personal engagement with contestants creates a bond that goes beyond simple entertainment into deep emotional engagement, compelling us to watch each week in order to feel the catharsis of victory or loss.