Reality TV: A shortcut to the American Dream? | WBEZ
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Reality TV: A shortcut to the American Dream?

Tales of rags to riches have a history in television--but the last decade created a whole new stage for young people wanting to show off their talents.

Every year, tens of thousands of Americans try out for talent-related reality shows. In March, The Voice drew more than 6,000 hopefuls to Chicago auditions alone. And for these people, it’s changing the idea of the American Dream.

Take Jesse Campbell, for example. He’s a preacher’s son who grew up in modest Maywood, Illinois. But earlier this year he stepped into the national spotlight when he made it to the finals of The Voice. Though the NBC hit was not his first go at talent-based reality TV. In fact, he’s tried out for a few shows.

The first was America’s Got Talent. He was rejected but knew there were plenty of other shows and so he kept trying.

“I stood out there, all day, all night at those auditions. And now I see why they call them the cattle call,” Campbell recalled.

In one audition, Campbell says he hadn’t even reach the second note of his song when one of the judges made him stop.

“And the judge said, ‘Very very nice, but no,'" Campbell recalled, "So, I went about my business, and said, 'well I (still) believe this is a platform for me. Maybe the judge was just having a bad day.”

So, Campbell saved up his money up and flew to another city to audition. That time, he didn’t even make it past the first round.

He kept trying, though, because his chances at making it any other way were slim.

Searching for fame and fortune

Campbell’s road to success has been a bumpy one, to say the least. After performing in churches, he signed on to Capitol Records and moved to Los Angeles where he met his wife--but the happiness was short-lived.

“The career did not take off as I hoped, and therefore the wife did,” Campbell said.

One person who didn't taken off, though was his three-year-old daughter.

In 2003, Campbell hit rock bottom: He and his daughter ended up living in their car; they parked it in a 24-hour grocery market in Santa Monica, California.

“Because it was open 24 hours a day, I figured people would probably think I was coming out or waiting for someone,” Campbell reasoned, “And that’s where we slept for two nights.”

Campbell wondered what he was doing, putting his daughter's safety and comfort at stake. He realized he could reach out to friends and family for help.

Campbell’s family and pastor gave him money to get by and offered him a place to stay--but work was sporadic. He performed in churches, waited tables, did some landscaping and sang on the streets of Santa Monica. All the while, Campbell didn’t give up on his childhood dreams: to have a modest home for his children.

He auditioned for The Voice’s first season and didn’t make the cut. But when he tried out again for the second season which aired earlier this year, The Voice said "yes."

“I looked over and saw my daughter, her eyes lit just so brightly and she was just so happy because she was just there with me as I sang on the street, not even a year ago. And now here she is watching daddy on television,” Campbell said.

A Shortcut to the American Dream? 

These shows have made an impact on the American Dream for some young people. Sociologist Karen Sternheimer wrote a book called Celebrity Culture and The American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility. She says the glut of reality television during this recession has produced a new jackpot.

She says that when the more traditional ways of having economic success or even economic stability seem impossible, there’s always the fantasy of the overnight success. She points to the lottery and reality shows, and even posting videos on YouTube as examples of how people think they can strike it rich, quickly.

“I think in recent years, these examples have been kind of like a last hope when people have trouble finding a job. Reality shows have really proliferated in recent years and there are more people who we might believe those people we see on television are just like us. And so in a strange way it seems like there are more opportunities,” Sternheimer explained.

And in fact, the Internet has created stars even without the help of television. Think of Justin Bieber who was discovered on YouTube: He’s the son of a single mom and he earned $108 million dollars in just the past two years. But his experience is a fluke.

Because most times, the amount of money and time invested by reality TV contestants doesn’t pay off. 

Sternheimer said research shows people on reality shows make an average of $1,500 a stint.

Sternheimer says the Internet and reality TV create the perception that we’re closer to celebrities and becoming a star seems more within reach. Some of the more popular reality shows like American Idol, The Real World and Bad Girls Club limit participants over the age of 30. That means young people are especially vulnerable in some cases.

Sometimes, television shows these young people engaging in unprofessional behavior like drinking heavily or using drugs and that would have serious job consequences in the future.

Campbell’s journey thus far has not brought him to riches from rags just yet. But he’s hopeful.

“These shows have great potential to bring about economic mobility, because it’s the exposure and what you do with it, it’s up to you. It has really made a big difference in my life simply because I can now do more than before because more people are aware of what it is that I have to offer, Campbell said.

Campbell’s main income comes from live performances right now. He’s investing those earnings into the album he’s currently making, while shopping it around. He’s also trying to get into commercial singing. And since he once before fell on his way up the economic ladder, he emphasizes education, hard work and perseverance for his daughter, Soraya. 

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