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Biggest reality show of all? It's the Olympics

Compare the Olympics to a reality show and you may get venomous pushback from sports fans. But take into account that both feature beloved competitors, villains trying to win, controversial judging and other similarities, and you may have to concede the point.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The rich history of reality television in the United States continues this week with the season debut of the most legendary of them all: the Olympic Games.Long before the social experiment/human zoo "Big Brother" arrived in the United States, before "Survivor" and "American Idol" hit the airwaves, even before Donald Trump was rich enough to dream of a show like "The Apprentice," we had the Summer Games. Television coverage of the Olympics, unscripted action at its finest, pioneered many of the techniques that currently earn reality television so much buzz and attention.

While the highly trained and toned athletes participating may not take kindly towards being compared with the contestants who appear on reality television, they're treated in a remarkably similar way by the networks.

Instant love
You've never heard of them before. By Labor Day, you'll have forgotten their names. But in the meantime, some Olympians will become people with whom you identify so strongly that it will ruin your week if they lose and make you cry tears of happiness if they win.

That's the genius of television. Both reality shows and sporting events thrive when viewers start to take a rooting interest in the outcome. Without that variable, "Dancing with the Stars" is just a bunch of C-List celebrities at prom, and the Olympic Games are just one big batch of athletes exercising with their friends in public.

Nobody wants to see that, figuratively or literally. So for both reality television and the Olympics, the networks use creative editing to help viewers find contestants they can quickly fall in love with

The Olympics are a producer's dream in that regard. There are thousands of athletes competing in the Olympics, so only the best stories get heard. Many of the athletes featured on TV in the United States are, naturally, Americans. And most of those profiles paint the athletes in a very positive light.

A prime example: Not many Americans bother to watch competitive swimming very often, and even a top athlete like Michael Phelps gets at most an "oh yeah … that swimmer dude" from most people in non-Olympic years. But as the coverage of the Games begins, we'll soon be reminded that he's a good guy and a great swimmer, he's trying very hard, there's a lot of pressure on him and he's handling it well. Before long, we're yelling at the TV and urging him to butterfly his way to victory. It's just that easy.

Villains to root against
For every hero, there must be a dastardly villain trying to snatch away the gold medal by any means necessary. Back in the Cold War days, the designated bad guys were the Russians or the East Germans, but it's new era and we need a new enemy to cheer against. For the 2008 Games, look for a pair of wild cards to fill that role — the host country, China, and the drug issue.China is trying very hard to use its hosting of the Olympics to display all of the great aspects of the enormous country. But the Chinese record on democracy and human rights is such that its government may well end up as the big villain of these Games anyway. If the inevitable human-rights protests gain traction, and China handles it poorly, they'll become the country everyone cheers against.If not, the safe choice for the villain of the Games is anyone caught using performance-enhancing drugs. That's been a big issue for decades, from the East German swimmers of the 1970s to Ben Johnson in 1988 to the present day. Anyone who is suspected of beating the system, will be hated by the public like Jeremy was by the rest of the guys on the last season of "The Bachelor."

Controversial judging
Some Olympic events come down to objective metrics — who gets from Point A to Point B the fastest. But in other sports, the athletes perform, and then stop to wait for the judges to decide if they advance or not.

On the "American Idol" auditions, if Simon, Randy and Paula don't like a singer, it doesn't matter what the audience thinks — that singer won't be around long. It's the same thing here. A gymnast can perform the routine of her life, but if one judge thinks she didn't stick the landing well enough on her vault, there goes the gold.

There are plenty of people who will forever believe that their favorite gymnast was pushed off the medal stand not because of a weak performance, but because the Russian judge had it in for Americans. In the same way, there remain thousands of "Idol" fans who think their favorites (Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry) weren't given a fair shot. That leads to controversy and passionate arguments, and in turn, more viewers.

Wacky challenges
Reality shows such as "Big Brother" thrive on making their contestants compete in wacky-looking competitions. It's easy to think that those shows have the monopoly on made-for-TV random sporting events.

But is the average reality show challenge any stranger than rhythmic gymnastics? Or synchronized swimming? Or jumping off a 10-meter platform into a little pool of water without making a splash?

All of the "field" events in track and field could translate easily into the framework of a reality TV show. After watching the athletes use a fiberglass pole to jump higher than most houses, don't be surprised to see the pole vault brought to the next season of "Survivor" in some form. And don't think that the "Big Brother" folks won't consider adding some swordplay to the house after catching the fencing competition in Beijing

High stakes
There's no million-dollar prize on the line for most Olympians. The stakes are much, much higher than that.The vast majority of these athletes have toiled for years in obscurity, training until they drop  and putting the rest of their lives on hold to compete in sports that most people don't really care about. They do it to get to the Olympic Games, which, for most sports, is the Super Bowl, World Series, and "American Idol" finale all rolled into one.Years of effort can be undone in just a few seconds. A false start, a slip on the balance beam, a tweaked hamstring, or just a bad day, and that's it. If that happens, there's no tomorrow — it's four more years until they get another chance.

You think getting kicked out of the "Big Brother" house is bad? Try having a lifetime of hard work undone by an untimely migraine.The host: What's a reality show without a sharp-dressed host to sum it all up at the end of the day?

The Olympics are second to none in the hosting department. Emmy-nominated Ryan Seacrest of "Idol" and Jeff Probst of "Survivor" may be flying high now, but they can all stand to sit at the feet of the great Bob Costas and learn. Nobody on television sums it up better.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.