GOP embraces reality TV
When the new season of “Dancing With the Stars” premiered last month, all eyes were on Bristol Palin, 20, who took to the stage for a cha-cha. Palin started the performance in a bespangled gray power suit, a little extra sparkle added to the sort of conservative silhouette a politician or businesswoman might wear. Just a few moves in, she tore it off to reveal a short red Vegas showgirl number.
It’s not a bad metaphor for the transformation of the whole Palin clan from political upstarts to entertainment stars: Bristol’s the new, unlikely queen of reality TV — or at least she was until her mother, Sarah, sat in the show’s audience and stole her daughter’s thunder. It’s just a warm-up for November, though, when “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” will begin airing on TLC. Bristol’s ex, Levi Johnston, meanwhile, is shopping around a series on his run for mayor of Wasilla, Ala.
The Palins are at the center of an increasingly symbiotic relationship between political figures and reality television. Call it the Palin-industrial complex — the notion that a political figure’s appearance on reality TV can be a mutually beneficial direct line to “real America.” And increasingly, it’s a brand-building strategy embraced by the once-stuffy GOP far more than Democrats.
Consider that Bristol Palin’s appearance on “Dancing With the Stars” followed previous stints by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson. And according to Politico.com, other cast-members under consideration for the upcoming season of “Dancing With the Stars” were Condoleezza Rice and Ann Coulter. Meghan McCain’s recently published campaign memoir reveals that post-election, her mother, Cindy, considered going on the program.
Other Republican reality stars include former “The Real World” cast member Sean Duffy, who is Palin-endorsed and currently running for Congress in Wisconsin. Jim Bob Duggar served in the Arkansas Legislature and ran in that state’s Republican Senate primary before his stint as the patriarch on TLC’s “19 and Counting!” And a new, Kelsey Grammer-backed conservative channel, RightNetwork, recently aired the pilot of “Running,” a series that follows GOP politicians on the campaign trail.
Even Sen. John McCain has creakily tried to get in on this trend, tweeting at a “Jersey Shore” star:"@Sn00ki u r right, I would never tax your tanning bed! Pres Obama’s tax/spend policy is quite The Situation. but I do rec wearing sunscreen!” (McCain’s daughter helped snag a Heidi Montag endorsement for her father in the ’08 presidential election.)
A few Democrats have embraced reality TV (disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich appeared on “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” and Kevin Powell from Season 1 of “The Real World” is running for Congress as a Democrat), but with considerably less verve than their Republican counterparts.
On the surface, a format routinely labeled trashy and scandalous might seem an odd fit for the party that bills itself as driven by old-fashioned family values. Indeed, Democrats were quicker out of the gate on the entertainment/new-media front in the ‘90s, in an effort to connect with younger voters. Diana Owen, a political scientist and the director of American Studies at Georgetown University, cited Bill Clinton’s famous “Boxers or briefs?” moment on MTV’s “Choose or Lose” as a key moment. George H.W. Bush declined to go on such programs, referring to them as “undignified.”
Nowadays Republicans are aggressively targeting working-class voters, an audience that reality television tapped early on, according to Owen.
Katherine Sender, an associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, said the GOP’s flirtation with reality TV “reflects the populist strand in the Republican party. Fictional shows like ‘Mad Men’ or ’30 Rock’ … tend to appeal to a narrower market segment of ‘elites,’ while reality TV shows appeal across the board.” TLC has begun explicitly marketing itself as the network of heartland values that showcases everyday lives rather than the exploits of celebrities or coastal elites.
While most reality shows avoid explicit political messages, there are plenty of surprisingly conservative values to be found there. Personal responsibility is often an underlying theme: Take “The Biggest Loser,” which extols the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ethos espoused by many Republicans. Strong, conservative reproductive messages shine through on “Sixteen and Pregnant”; although the young women featured on the show engage in teen sex, they also eschew abortion. “19 Kids & Counting” follows the Duggars, deeply conservative Christians with 19 children.
And then there are competition shows such as “Survivor”: after a brutal eat-or-be-eaten struggle, winning is usually rewarded with cash — nearly the definition of Burkean capitalism. Series on which the audience votes cast members off seem particularly well-suited to encourage the idea (whether true or not ) that power rests firmly in the hands of the ordinary person rather than network executives.
Deena Katz, senior producer and casting director of “Dancing With the Stars,” says that she has approached political figures on both sides of the aisle; it just happens that those who’ve accepted have Republican ties, and they’ve done so without hesitation — DeLay, Palin and Carlson all said yes “within, probably, an hour.”
“Casting the show is a jigsaw puzzle of pieces, and each piece pulls in a different audience,” Katz said. The show’s massive audience skews older and female, but Katz says she goes after as broad a segment as possible, with each cast member pitched to a different demographic slice. After DeLay’s appearance, Katz did notice an uptick in right-leaning pols, their wives, and kids — “his friends” — reaching out to ask to appear on the show.
“DWTS” might be a particularly attractive way for political figures to build their brand because its format is, relative to other reality television shows, a fairly dignified one — there is no hair-pulling, no hot-tub camera. Dance-floor mishaps are humanizing embarrassments that might evoke empathy in the average viewer. The wrong format can mean political death: In Britain, politician George Galloway watched his career dissolve after a stint on “Celebrity Big Brother” broadcast him dancing in a leotard and licking cream from a bowl like a cat.
“Sarah Palin’s Alaska” seems likely to stay on the relatively dignified end of the reality continuum. According to Jacob Weisberg, author of “Palinisms” and chairman of the Washington Post Co.'s Slate Group, it’s not surprising that this recent spate of GOP/reality-TV collaborations has crystallized around the Palin brand. The former Alaska governor “is more like a celebrity who happens to be in politics than a politician who happens to be a celebrity.”
Michael Hirschorn, a contributing editor at the Atlantic and owner of Ish Entertainment, which has produced such shows as “T.I.'s Road to Redemption” and “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF,” said he met with Levi Johnston about the possibility of a reality collaboration. Nothing came of it, but he thinks that we’ll continue to see more political figures from the right than the left on our screens.
“Both Republicans and reality-show stars are contractually minded — it’s a marriage of convenience,” Hirschorn said, noting that “recently conservatives have been less prissy about using really popular media…. ‘Real’ Americans don’t think reality television is beneath them. Maybe New York and D.C. do, but that’s a way in which they’re behind.”
Still, he said, the imperative of reality producers is to “find people just this side of disreputable, colorful characters. If Clinton had been elected in the reality-TV era, Roger Clinton would have been on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’” Casting isn’t necessarily based on party affiliation, he added. “Right now, there just aren’t a lot of fun liberals out there.”