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Late-night shows find favor with GOP presidential candidates

Mitt Romney has yet to appear on the Sunday morning political talk shows of three major broadcast networks this fall, but the GOP presidential candidate front-runner has twice found time this year for David Letterman’s late-night show, including a turn earlier this week in which he ribbed rival Newt Gingrich in a Top 10 list.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry also ran to Letterman’s CBS show to poke fun at his famous memory lapse, but has declined invitations to hash out policy questions on the network’s “Face the Nation.” Perry also joked around on NBC’s “Tonight Show” but has been MIA on that network’s “Meet the Press.”

Just four years ago, trips to the Sunday talk shows were all but mandatory for presidential candidates. Every major primary candidate endured that gantlet during fall 2007, some of them twice (Hillary Rodham Clinton, then running for the Democratic nomination, did all three networks on the same day). The late Tim Russert vetted candidates so exhaustively that “Meet the Press” was dubbed “the Russert primary.”

But in an ever fragmenting television universe, the Sunday morning talk shows are witnessing their central role in the election process fade as candidates gravitate toward lighter programs where the hosts are more welcoming, the audiences younger and the questions usually softer. These pop culture shows, whose mandate is to entertain rather than inform, afford office seekers an opportunity to better control the discussion, to target the niche audiences of a 500-channel world, and to present a self-effacing, human image to voters.

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So far, Romney and Perry have avoided “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation,” and ABC’s “This Week,” though Fox News has had more success attracting the Republican candidates to their Sunday program.

“At one point of time, it was a rite of passage to go do Tim Russert and ‘Meet the Press,’” said Chris Lehane, a political strategist who worked for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. “The Sunday shows have already begun to change.”

Today, the Sunday shows function more like news magazines that review the past week for the Beltway’s “political cognoscenti,” added Lehane. “I don’t think they’re necessarily playing the same role that they historically did, in some part because people get access to folks in different ways, including late-night TV.”

Historian Richard Reeves calls it part of the “dumbing-down of America,” in which candidates bypass the potential grilling of Sunday morning for the friendlier confines of late-night and weekday talk shows like “The View.”

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David Gregory is one television interviewer who is acutely aware of the candidates’ preferences — he took over “Meet the Press” after Russert’s death in 2008. Getting presidential aspirants on his show has been very challenging, he said. The reason: “A lot of these candidates want to avoid a forum where they see too much downside; where they think they can make a mistake, where they think they can get tripped up.”

But Lehane and other candidate handlers blame the Sunday shows themselves, which they contend have moved toward “gotcha” questions.

“Big-time presidential elections, assuming they’re competitive, ultimately are character tests,” he said, and it’s easier to be likable on an entertainment show instead of a Sunday morning program where “you basically know you’re going in there and they’re going to throw a hundred pitches at your head, and it’s considered successful if you allow none of them to hit you.”

That doesn’t mean that the entertainment route is necessarily risk-free. Michele Bachmann — who has appeared multiple times on the Sunday politics shows this fall — also agreed to NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” The house band the Roots introduced her with a ska song called “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.” An incensed Bachmann later received an apology from Fallon and an NBC executive.

Some comedy hosts insist their programs offer information that is just as valuable as on more traditional news outlets. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism studied “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” for a year and concluded in 2008 that its focus was very similar to that of cable news programs.

“The idea that an interview on Fox News or MSNBC is more serious than an interview on my show is silly,” said Jimmy Kimmel, host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” “It isn’t. I’m a person talking to another person, and so are they.”

“The idea that these cable news networks have more gravitas than David Letterman does, I mean, that’s ridiculous,” added the late-night host, who first interviewed then GOP frontrunner Herman Cain about allegations of sexual harassment last month. “This idea that they’re journalists — what does it even mean anymore?”

For decades, the Sunday shows have held sway over the nation’s political elites. “Meet the Press,” which premiered in 1947 and is the longest-running series on American TV, became, during Russert’s tenure starting in 1991, a virtual checkpoint en route to the Oval Office. The program expanded to one hour, giving Russert ample time to juxtapose candidates’ past statements and actions with their current positions — his signature style.

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But many political pros think of entertainment-oriented talk shows as a better format.

“You go on those shows, you can move the dial in the poll numbers, because your audience is so big,” Lehane said. “That would never happen even in the best of times on a Sunday morning show.”

In fact, the gap is not that large, although the comedy shows reach much younger and more geographically diverse audiences. This season, “Meet the Press” has averaged 3 million total viewers, according to Nielsen; “Late Show” during November averaged 3.4 million.

That’s forcing a change in the Sunday morning shows. Amid the heavily contested GOP primary, ABC’s “This Week” devoted an entire segment earlier this month to an interview with Angelina Jolie, who isn’t running for anything but did have a new movie to promote.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” host Bob Schieffer got another sit-down with the GOP’s other front-runner Newt Gingrich this week, but like his rivals hasn’t made much progress with Perry or Romney. “They tend to stay away from something they can’t control,” Schieffer (whose program is itself about to expand to one hour) said of modern candidates and their handlers.

Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday,” said he’s had no problem getting candidates including Romney to come on his program this time around — but that may be because Republican politicians are more aligned with the Fox News ethos than other networks and hence a more efficient route to reaching GOP primary voters.

“They feel more comfortable going on Fox News, just like President Obama and Vice President Biden and Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley have felt more comfortable going on ‘Meet the Press’ and ABC and CBS for the last three years,” he said. “There are places you feel you might get a fairer hearing.”

Additionally, he added: “There are certainly more Republicans watching ‘Fox News Sunday’ than watching ‘Meet the Press’ or ABC. So, if you’re running in the Republican primary, it makes sense to go on ‘Fox News Sunday.’”

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President Obama, unusual for a sitting president, has also been making stops on the late-night entertainment shows and on “The View,” so it’s not just Republicans who have opted for alternative TV forums.

Reeves, a historian who’s written bestselling books on Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, sees some candidates’ reluctance to appear on the Sunday shows as inimical to democracy and good governance, although he understands the attraction.

“They have found a way to go around serious interrogation,” he said. “From their standpoint, that’s probably terrific.”

scott.collins@latimes.com


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