Arts & Pop Culture / Culture & Society

Why Am I Watching This? musings on niche competition shows

By Olivia Bono

Sitting at home this past winter break, I stared half-interested at the screen as my dad flicked through channels. Usually our go-to idle viewing is somewhere between the History Channel, TNT, or Syfy. This particular day we went with the History Channel. It’s not news that the History Channel has produced some weird TV, from Pawn Stars, the show about buying and selling junk, to Ancient Aliens, the conspiracy theory show that you may recognize from that Internet meme from 2010. But I was taken aback to see what appeared to be a normal cooking show—a small group of skilled competitors, each with their own backstory, giving their candid responses to a camera as a panel of three judges voted one out based on their handiwork—on the History Channel.

Every episode of Forged in Fire follows the same pattern: a goggled man spins in a circle, hacking and slashing at stalk after stalk of sugarcane. The blade in his hand twirls through the air, carving through anything and everything it touches, even the air itself. There is a brief moment of quiet, of stillness, as no one in the room dares to breathe. The other judges look concerned, and perhaps the one that looks like Colonel Sanders lifts an eyebrow. Three bearded men (two from somewhere in the deep South, one from Portland) furrow their brows, extreme close-ups highlighting the sweat dripping down their foreheads. After this tense interlude, the first man finally speaks. It is time for the quintessential Forged in Fire catchphrase. “This,” he says with a smile, “will cut.”

The thing is, although it holds to almost an identical structure as popular shows like The Great British Baking Show, Forged in Fire isn’t about cooking. It’s about the process and culture surrounding blade-smithing. The contestants don’t bake cakes; they forge swords and knives.

Now, I know absolutely nothing about forgery. The show fills in gaps in the viewers’ knowledge with insight from the judges, history lessons, and definitions, but these facts aren’t exactly the kind of knowledge you’d use in your day-to-day life. According to NPR, there are only between 5,000 and 10,000 blacksmiths in the U.S. In 2016, Forged’s third season received over 1.5 million live views, leading to its renewal. Over a million people are watching this show about making swords, something most of these viewers likely know very little about.

Until now, I had assumed that this format of competition reality show was so successful because it seemed to be relatable—either normal people competing in tense situations or professionals completing familiar tasks. Of “familiar tasks,” the best example is probably cooking; not everyone is a professional chef, but everyone’s familiar with some of the basic elements of cooking, at least enough to know that burnt food is bad. Viewers of The Bachelor have likely been on a bad date, and viewers of Face Off have seen an old science fiction movie or two. But with Forged, the show educates on trivia that will probably not resonate too deeply with any of its viewers. When the contestants are talking about the benefits of quenching a blade in oil rather than water, we have to believe them. I found myself yelling at the screen when one foolhardy contestant quenched his blade in water, despite my not knowing anything about why this is bad. I found myself feeling vindicated when his blade later failed, as if I were more skilled at blade-smithing than he, despite never holding a real sword in my life (somehow I don’t think the wooden sword from the 10th grade school play would have survived the test).

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Art by Kelly Stone

I see now that these shows’ subjects don’t have to be humble to resonate—it can actually be the opposite. There’s a kind of sensationalism that’s incredibly addicting; watching people make the biggest cakes, wear the most outlandish makeup, craft the wildest-looking swords, all appeals to a sense of adventure. Sometimes these tasks even feel fantastical, and there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from knowing these feats are happening not in a story, but in real life. The producers definitely know this, dedicating a ton of time to contestants’ backstories. Even on Dancing With The Stars, in which the contestants are already rich and famous, half the appeal comes from making their sensational situations seem like they could happen to anyone—a person with a relatable origin story participates in over-the-top drama. Personally, I never used to see the appeal in these kinds of shows. I say this in the past tense, as a person who has now seen nearly every episode of this silly knife-making show, who insisted on setting the DVR for the five minutes I had to leave the room to ensure I didn’t miss the results of the historical re-enactment segment.

Being so new to this obsession, I had to do some research. The earliest American show I could find in this specific competition format was Survivor, which debuted in 2000, making reality competition a truly 21st century phenomenon. But to say reality TV, a modern invention, is shallow is oversimplifying the concept, at least in the case of these televised, incentivized competitions. The contestants have agreed to put themselves on display for the promise of fame and a modest cash prize, but the audience gets none of this. In this modern social contract, the audience must get something to justify the millions of hours spent in front of the screen.  Having never taken a psychology class, I don’t think I could ever say exactly why 1.5 million other people also love this weird, repetitive show, but some elements are obvious. They fit together like pieces of a puzzle: the oddly specific forgery tips, the thrill of competition, the suspense and curiosity that builds up when the channel cuts to a commercial every time before the results of a test. Even the weapons specialist’s catchphrases, “it will cut” and “it will kill,” feel incredibly manufactured for drama, and while I know this, I let myself buy into the gimmick anyway, as do millions of people every time they watch these kinds of shows. We are glued to our screens watching models, chefs, makeup artists, dancers, hair stylists, celebrities, and bachelors going head-to-head for a vague sum of money.

The only conclusion I can seem to draw is that the success of these shows is not based on the niche subjects they cover—the show could be about anything and people would still watch, as long as there is drama and a sense of accomplishment. Our attention is bought not by relating it to our mundane lives, but to raw emotion. Whether a grown man is crying over a burnt casserole or a broken sword, the challenge doesn’t matter, only our macabre fascination with seeing him fail. When a dish turns out just right or a weapons expert carves a dead animal apart, we cheer at seeing our favorites succeed, at knowing exactly why they’re winning. It’s only human nature to want to be a part of a competition, to root for your favorites, and to be invested in their success or failure. The question isn’t how we can stop this trajectory, but where it’s going next. The popularity of The Great British Baking Show led to titles like The Great British Sewing Bee and The Great Pottery Throw Down. What will be the next big reality show of 2018? A competitive birdwatching show called Birdbrained? A contact juggling show called Don’t Drop the Ball? I, for one, am excited to see what crazy combination cable TV has for us next.

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