Entry from September 23, 2002

O my prophetic soul!

It comes as no surprise, of course, that reality outruns parody. No sooner had I suggested, no more than half-seriously, that the TV networks ought to run a reality TV show, along the lines of “American Idol,” to pick a presidential candidate than Fox announced that it has just such a show in the works. “American Candidate,” according to the network, “will allow TV viewers to choose their ‘people”s candidate’ over a six-month period.” The only snag is that, like the network’s disappointing “Bachelorettes in Alaska” which was advertised as being about love-starved lumberjacks vying with each other to take five gals from the lower 48 down the aisle when in fact it required nothing of the men but a decision to continue — or not — “seeing” the women after the show concluded, the candidate will not necessarily be running for president.

Moreover, if he (or, of course, she) does decide to run, Fox will not be making the advertising dollars generated by the show available to him (or her) for the campaign. “We”re certainly not going to provide them,”says the show’s producer, R.J. Cutler, referring to the necessary campaign funds. “This show is going to function squarely within whatever finance regulations there are. That’s why we are being very careful not to say our goal is to run anybody for office. . . We know that a television show or a cable channel or a media organization cannot run anyone for office.”

Perhaps the network feels that it is being quite public-spirited enough by providing masses of publicity during the primary season — as the winner is to be announced at a grand “American Candidate” convention on the National Mall in Washington (it is hoped) on the 4th of July 2004. But this is a little short-sighted of the suits, I think. Not only does the idea have the potential to put an end to the whole controversy over campaign finance laws, as I originally suggested, thus earning the thanks of a grateful nation, but the increase in civic engagement to be expected if the show is a hit could only have a beneficial effect on the Fox News Network and other Fox properties. “Word will spread and interest will spread and, as a result, galvanize not only the viewing audience but a broad cross section” of the electorate, Mr Cutler told Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post.

Thus, presumably, the Fox network could acquire a monopoly position in political news — or at least the only political news that anyone will have much interest in. Mr Cutler, producer of the Clinton hagiography The War Room in 1993, which was arguably the launching pad for the spectacular media careers of James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, also stands to gain. “Finally!” he crowed to Miss Moraes. “Reality television is returning to its natural home. . . Presidential politics is the Great Reality Television Platform.” And who could argue with him? He himself is hoping to cash in on any decision to run by following the chosen one around with his cameras with a view to making another War Room-style, fly-on-the-wall documentary about it.

The process remains a little unclear by which the judges will the finalists from among thousands of applicants who will have collected fifty signatures of friends and neighbors who believe them to be the stuff that presidents are made of. But the hundred who make the cut are to be winnowed down to a mere three before the “convention” with the help of various competitions, B la “Survivor.” I do hope that I may once again be proved a prophet here, and that the producers will take a leaf out of the book of “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” It would of course be very jolly to see any celebrity shipped off to the Australian jungle to endure painful and entertaining humiliations, but if he (or she) subsequently gathers the expected head of electoral steam, the major party candidates would have to follow suit. And what fun that would be.

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