Friday, May 13, 2011

When second isn't good enough

I've always thought about if I were on a reality competitionshow , what position would I want to finish (assuming I did not win.) I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be the person eliminated right before the final challenge/jury vote/whatever.

I realize that this seems a bit odd - most people would at least want a chance to win the game. I can understand this theory, but at the same time you have the knowledge that you failed if you did not win. I'm not sure what feeling would be worse: not knowing how you would fare in a final, or knowing that you weren't good enough to win. But it goes beyond that. History shows that when given a choice, other reality competition players will more often than not choose the weakest player(s), who they feel stand the worst chance to win in a final competition as their competitors.

This truth can best be seen in the first season of Survivor. In the final immunity challenge, Richard Hatch actually removed himself from the competition early, using the logic that whomever won the competition whould have to choose to face him in the final tribal council. Both other competitors realized this was the case immediately, with Rudy stating that he had lost $1 million when he lost that immunity challenge. This proved to be true, with Kelly voting out Rudy and choosing to bring Richard along to the final tribal council.

We also got to see the opposite of this theory in play in the second season of Survivor. Colby, dominant in challenges, had to choose between his main alliance mate in Tina, and his other alliance mate (and much more hated) Keith. The person he chose would be in the final tribal council. Colby willingly chose Tina over Keith for honour reasons, knowing that his job would be much more difficult in facing Tina. As it turned out, Tina won and most members of the jury indicated that if Colby had brought Keith to the final, Colby would have won in a landslide.

This rule also applies to Big Brother and other "vote for the person who you feel is the winner" type of shows. But what about a show like the Apprentice, where there is really only one arbitrator - Donald Trump? Funy enough this exists in a slightly different way.

Apprentice (and its Celebrity cousin) has a tradition for the "finale." 4 (or the odd time 3) candidates are brought in to be interviewed by various people who have had success in either the Apprentice/Celebrity Apprentice, or in actual business. These people then come back to Mr. Trump and give him their recommendations for who should end up in the final two. Trump then takes these recommendations and results to decide who will be the final two candidates who will be competing in the final challenge. The dirty secret is that Trump tends to already know who the final two will be, and he does what he can to influence who the final two will be prior to this interview process.

Let's use this year's Celebrity Apprentice as an example. Jon Rich and Marlee Matlin had competed as project managers earlier in the season, and had combined to have the lartgest amount of donations brought to any challenge in the history of Celebrity Apprentice. This was so impressive that when the final 5 competitors came together to figure out the next competition, Trump was very excited to find out that Marlee and Jon Rich would be battling again, going so far as to hype the battle as a rematch of two titans. Jon Richwon, leaving the losing group of candidates to be Marlee, Star Jones and Meat Loaf.

During the previous competition, Meat Loaf was very emotional when he was raising money once he realized the money may not end up going to his charity of choice. He even went so far to get Star to inquire if Mr. Trump would allow them to keep the money they had raised. He cried when Jon Rich stood up and told him that if Meat Loaf lost, he would personally donate the amount Meat Loaf raised for his charity. In the current task, Meat Loaf was the driving force behind the creative for a losing promotional video.

Meanwhile, Star Jones had been a strong competitor going into that task. She was in charge of branding for this task, and the branding was identified as another of the weak sots. Both Jones and Loaf were likely to be on the chopping block. One would assume that Jones would make it through on the strength on her previous performances.

One would assume wrong. Buoyed on by a blowup between Meat Loaf and Star Jones about Loaf's referring to Jones as "sweetie", Trump followed through by firing Jones, citing her inability to get a long with people (using the "sweetie" argument as an example) as well as the weak branding (which was her responsibility.) He ignored that Loaf was the one who edited the video (thus not including the necessary branding), and created the ideathat the onStar executives hated (specifically the bumbling police officer character.) The reason why this happened had less to do with their respective performances, and more to do with an overriding narrative - Marlee Matlin and Jon Rich were now tied 1-1 in head to head competitions, and there was only going to be one opportunity left to match them up once again.

In order for Trump to get to a final two of Rich and Matlin, he needs for them to get through the final four interviews. Trump has no way of preventing Li'l Jon from affeecting his preferred final two, beyond finding a reason to fire him in the final four. He can probably point to Jon Rich and Marlee Matlin being moreimpressive or something - call it a close choice, but ultimately firing him. Meat Loaf has done a good job in terms of being a worker bee - when put in a role where he has to either lead a group or is in charge of running a significant piece of a task, he has proven to be more of a questionable commodity. Mr. Trump will be able to easily fire him while giving him the platitudes about his performance. But Star Jones? One of Star's greatest gifts in this competition is her ability to present arguments that favoured her. She is very likley to impress the interviewers, putting Trump in a position where he woud have to jump through hoops to explain why he was firing her. So instead, when given the oportunity to get rid of her before the interviews, he pounced.

This is a continuing story with the Celebrity Apprentice, where the stronger candidates Clint Black and Maria Kanellis were fired prior to the interviews for menial reasons, while Jesse James and Curtis Stone were kept even though they were subsequently fired for either not having what it takes to be the Celebrity Apprentice and being a one-trick pony (Stone) or holding back contacts and not bringing in big donors (James). In the first Celebrity Apprentice, Trace Adkins' inability to win a task as project manager was glossed over so that he coudl be brought back and face Piers Morgan in the final. As well, Trump changed what he had said he was going to do during Apprentice Season 6, when he fired strong competitor Kristine Lefevbre for a mistake, even though he had previously stated he would be firing two members of a team. It's an indicator of how Trump works - get an idea as to what you want your final two to be, then make the path to it as clean as you can. If anything, being eliminated prior to the one on one interview process is an indication of how strong a player you are - should Trump think you could mess up his ideal final two for the show, he will want to get rid of you before the final four.

When you are eliminated right before a final challenge/tribal council, it is an indication that you are considered to be a threat to win the competition outright. If I can't win, I'd rather have the knowledge that I was a threat to win the entire thing than to know that I was given a chance to win, but could not. Call it the power of the "What If".

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