‘Killer Karaoke,’ Competition Reality Shows And Why America’s Exploitative Employers Keep Getting Away With It

Yes, this woman is singing while in a pool full of snakes.

Over at Press Play, Drew Gardner has written one of the best pieces I’ve ever read about reality television. Focusing on a new show called Killer Karaoke, in which contestants are required to sing while being plunged into ice water, shocked with electric collars, or covered in bugs, he argues that reality television, an innovation in programming is cheaper in part because participants don’t have to be paid anything, has begun driving even the rewards offered to the successful contestant who makes it all the way through to the end down—in Killer Karaoke, the most the winner can make is $10,000—but that Killer Karaoke has exposed the unpaid labor in poor conditions that undirgird the industry as part of its very schtick:

Killer Karaoke breaks with this tradition. There is no panel. The contestants are judged only by the audience, according to whatever criteria they please, probably a mix of singing talent, courage, and how entertainingly they flip out. But winning is not exactly the point of the show. Something of an afterhtought, the anti-climactic final challenge involves singing while remaining balanced on a giant rotating turntable with two other remaining contestants. The point of the show is to see how winningly contestants can suffer humiliation and pain under objectionable working conditions. In contrast with American Idol, Killer Karaoke encourages the audience to sympathize with all the contestants from the beginning: though we’re amused by their suffering, we’re also rooting for them. We want everyone to succeed, in a situation where success comes down to freaking out in the most hilarious way…

Steve-O is very much a traditional game show host in this role on Killer Karaoke, an updated Bud Collyer. He stays out of the action and keeps to the role of explaining the stunts and drawing comments out of the contestants. In a recent interview about the show, he said, “Breaking bones and sticking things up my ass was not getting any easier.” It’s clear that he has a strong grasp of the economy of the show, and perhaps about reality TV in general: “It’s about the misfortune of others and exploiting people’s willingness to sacrifice their dignity and well being just to be on TV for a brief moment.” Steve-O’s host character is an expert on ill-advised activities who has happily gotten himself promoted to a upper management position.

The show sounds horrifying, but it’s a fascinating point. And given what seems like the sudden implosion of the television business model, a heavy reliance on reality television, likely with diminished rewards, seems likely to continue. What’s interesting is whether this particular subset of the industry will reach a point where what’s on offer, be it financial or the chance for exposure, is so minimal, and the challenges or humiliations involved are so great, that reality television will stop finding takers. Hotels, big-box stores, and other employers that rely heavily on low-wage workers increasingly seem to have tested, and found, the floor for what they can ask employees to do and still find a steady stream of labor without provoking union organizing drives. But unlike reality television, low-wage American jobs were never going to offer massive prizes to a few workers to defuse more general discontent about compensation and working conditions. In the lottery that is the American economy, if you promise millions of dollars to a single person, you’ll be able to take many millions more from even those who know they’re getting played for suckers—particularly if you’re asking them to participate in one bad subset of the economy because the one they long to escape is worse.