Why do Canadians excel on American reality TV shows? Could be our brains, our backgrounds or our niceness
Canadians had to survive as spectators of “Survivor” for the reality show’s first 38 seasons. Once they could apply, they made a strong first impression.
In the show’s 41st season in 2021, Niagara Falls’ Erika Casupanan took home the title.
Then, in a move that might have filled Americans with regret at having opened the world’s longest undefended border, Ajax’s Maryanne Oketch won the show’s 42nd season earlier this year.
And it didn’t stop there.
Toronto’s Nicolina Bozzo was a finalist on “American Idol” this season. Ten-year-old Roberta Battaglia of Vaughan wowed the judges on “America’s Got Talent” in 2020, winning a Golden Buzzer before moving on to finish fourth in the competition. Kaitlyn Bristowe of Leduc, A.B., won “Dancing With the Stars” in 2020.
Canadians performing well against Americans isn’t a new concept in sports, but the recent onscreen successes raise the obvious question: Are Canadians just better at reality TV?
“Canadians punch well above our weight class in many different domains of cultural activity,” J. Bruce Morton said. “Canadians have a quiet confidence that we’re level-headed and that we are solid quality contributors.”
The neuroimaging researcher at the Western Institute for Neuroscience says the Canadian brain does have unique characteristics, but this is true of every brain regardless of its geographic orientation.
“The brain is something that is subject to experience. If we can identify something that is unique about the Canadian experience, it stands to reason that we could probably identify something that is unique about the Canadian brain. What we need to continue to figure out is what it is about the Canadian experience that is unique.”
Journalist Andy Dehnart has been covering reality television for the past 23 years on his RealityBlurred.com website. The writer believes Morton is on to something with his theory about the Canadian lifestyle having a positive effect on how well Canadians have been doing on these programs.
“There is something to the specific life experience that Canadians have that an American contestant might not have. At the very least, that gives them a different approach and that is ultimately an advantage in any kind of reality competition.”
So what exactly is the Canadian experience? Morton mused that the varying backgrounds of Canadians give them an advantage in games that include socially interacting with others.
“Our one unifying element is the fact that we’re all immigrants … we’re all fish out of water. Because we have all come from somewhere else, we’re all acutely aware that there’s 10 ways to cook dinner and different ways of getting things done.”
He cited the example of two people riding on the subway to illustrate his point.
“On the train, you might be looking out the window and thinking about the story you have to submit to your editor while my eyes might be taking a fancy over some woman that happened to walk on. Even though we’re in the same environment, we have qualitatively different experiences.”
The brain expert believes that Canadians have a unique way of learning from their environment, one that can’t be found in the U.S.
“You can put two Americans on a subway train and perhaps they have a relatively similar way of constructing experience whereas Canadians come from all corners of the world.”
“Survivor” winner Oketch used the same train example to explain why Canadians are enjoying their recent reality run.
“I think Canadians in general are just nicer as a whole,” she said. “I remember (being on) the GO train in Toronto with people just starting a random conversation with someone else on the train. You don’t see that in New York City. Over there, if someone’s talking on the train you’re not looking at them. It’s that personableness that comes with being Canadian.”
Despite being cast alongside 16 Americans and one Canadian — Kitchener’s Omar Zaheer — Oketch was able to effectively use her bubbly personality to convince the jury to give her the win. She credited watching 38 seasons of “Survivor” before being allowed to apply for preparing her to play and also for fuelling her desire to win.
Being forced to watch from the sidelines without being able to participate also explains the recent Canadian wins. Dehnart said Americans now have a lackadaisical attitude to these competitive shows. That is in direct opposition to the thirst and desire Canadians have to be on the shows.
“Americans get complacent whereas Canadian superfans who were prevented from applying for the show may take it a little more seriously and a little less for granted.”
“Big Brother Canada” 2022 winner Kevin Jacobs believes he had a tougher path to victory because he was competing only against other Canadians.
“I think I had a harder ride. You don’t really go on these shows in Canada to get famous, whereas sometimes you see people doing that in the U.S.,” the Toronto man said. “Because people are playing for themselves, I would argue Canadians are the better competition.”
Kaitlyn Bristowe was one of 30 women, and the only Canadian, cast on “The Bachelor” in 2015. While she didn’t make it to the final rose ceremony on the show’s 19th season, Bristowe became a fan favourite and was subsequently cast as one of the two starring Bachelorettes later that year.
Her dominance didn’t end there. She went on to win “Dancing With the Stars” in 2020, an impressive feat as she was competing against American celebrities with huge followings for votes that could be cast only by other Americans.
Bristowe credits her Canadian authenticity for her success.
“I just feel like everyone has honest conversations here. Nobody’s trying to over-speak or step on toes. I feel like Canadians value the right things.”
Bristowe believes that her ability to speak her mind and always remain unfiltered is what ultimately led to her connection with the audience.
“A lot of people that end up on TV, I feel like they think they need to be somebody else. I have just always been taught to embrace who I am to my core.”
Oketch agreed. The current “Survivor” champ believes she is holding the title to simply pass it on to the next Canadian in line.
“There are so many other Canadians in different provinces and territories who are just itching to play. And when they are cast, they’re going to show up just as well as I do. If you see someone from Canada in the future, you better watch out because we’re coming for the crown. We’re built different in every single way.”
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