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Reality TV is coming to Washington

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 21, 2002

Ever since television started the reality show craze, people have jumped off cliffs, been submerged in a container of rats and bungee jumped off tall buildings.

But now television is getting really dangerous. Average people will try to survive in the political jungle.

Or at least that is the premise of a new show to be produced by FX, a cable channel trying to cut through the clutter of the 200-channel universe. The channel, owned by the News Corp., intends to air a reality show that it claims could produce a grass roots candidacy for the 2004 presidential election.

The idea seems farfetched. But the channel hopes that it can tap into the same chemistry that made a huge recent hit of its corporate sibling's American Idol, a Fox Network show on which amateurs competed for a record contract and a chance to be the next pop singing sensation. In fact, the show will be called American Candidate.

Whether cinema verite about the hustings is sexy enough to draw viewers remains to be seen. The show will use elements of the documentary The War Room, which chronicled the behind-the-strategists in the 1992 presidential election. It will follow contestants as they campaign against another to become the viewers' choice for president of the United States.

A panel will review applications and whittle them down to 100 semifinalists, two from each state. The show is scheduled for 13 episodes to begin on January 2004. On each episode, viewers and members of a live audience will vote contestants off the show. Contestants will campaign against the backdrop of American icons, like Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty. The show will end on July 4, 2004, at the Washington Mall with a faceoff among three candidates.

It is up to the winner, or any other contestant, to decide whether to try to get on the presidential ballot. Don't hold your breath. Getting on the ballot would take a gargantuan effort to make an independent run, given the difficulty of acquiring enough petition support to get on the ballot.

The network will not help candidates build war chests or pay them for their participation on the show, said R.J. Cutler, one of the show's creators and the producer of The War Room.

"The network will not support the candidate," said Peter Liguori, president and chief executive officer of FX. "It is merely offering them a platform in much of the same way that an editorial page allows for opinions to be brought to a wider public. The audience will decide which candidates move forward. Once the show is done, the network will step aside."

He promises that the series would not make a mockery out of the electoral system and that it would adhere to the requirement of the law. Applicants can be any American-born citizen who will be 35 years old by Jan. 20, 2005. They must produce a petition signed by 50 supporters, who can be friends or co-workers, who can explain why the applicant would make a good president.

"They will see the candidate's presidential mettle tested," he said. "You will absolutely watch them campaign. You will hear about their core beliefs. You'll find out how they use opposition research tactics. You'll learn about their oratory skills and if there are skeletons in their closets and see once and for all if their sex lives matter."

Cutler and Peter Liguori, chief executive officer of FX, said they hope viewers will take the show seriously. They point to Jesse Ventura, who became governor of Minnesota after being a popular wrestler on television.

FX president Kevin Reilly said he hoped the show would illuminate the democratic process, even produce a kind of Bob Roberts or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington populist who will affect real politics.

"It's not about getting idiots on parade, sounding off," Reilly said.

Informed of the planned project, Democratic political consultant Mark Mellman said: "Let's put it this way. Already many more people watch C.J. Cregg's press conferences (on the NBC drama The West Wing) than watch any of Ari Fleischer's press conferences. Sometimes the fake world is more entertaining than the real world."

But, he added, referring to American Idol: "It's one thing to find out there's a great singer that you missed. You're unlikely to find a great president that you missed."

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