January 9, 2004

Reality TV's Ultimate Jungle: Simulated Presidential Politics


DES MOINES, Jan. 8 Look out, President Bush and (fill in eventual Democratic opponent here).

Reality television, after producing the ultimate singing sensation, romantic mate and jungle-island castaway, will next seek the perfect political candidate.

Showtime said it would present a reality show this summer in which contestants of all political stripes would go through the motions of a mock presidential campaign until an ultimate winner emerges in September who would then be free to make a real run for president.

The show was originally envisioned for the FX basic-cable network last year, but, citing its potential costs, FX backed out. That left room for the much smaller Showtime, a premium-cable network with about 13 million subscribers, quietly to pick it up in the late fall.

The show is to culminate a year in which politics and entertainment have melded to unprecedented degrees, including the election of the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.

While those running the major political campaigns said they were not too worried that a truly threatening candidate would emerge from the Showtime contest, they said they would nonetheless keep a wary eye on it.

"It would be very tough at a national level for a candidate from that to be viable, but stranger things have happened in politics," said Roger Salazar, spokesman for the presidential campaign of Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

A senior official with one of the leading Democratic campaigns, who requested anonymity, complained: "It's just another element that we're adding to national politics that makes it more about a game-show atmosphere than about the direction of the nation. It's California all over again."

But the show's producer, R. J. Cutler, said it was designed to engage disinterested voters in the political process, which it would not cheapen.

Mr. Cutler has produced "The War Room" (1993), a documentary, and "The Real Roseanne Show," about Roseanne Barr.

He said he expected at least 10,000 applicants to sign up for the show through the Internet (www.Americancandidate.com) or a toll-free telephone number (877-RUN-2004).

Producers and network executives, with advice from a bipartisan panel of political experts, will narrow the field to 12 contestants. Viewers will vote each week via the Internet and telephone to eliminate at least one candidate until one remains.

The contestants, Mr. Cutler said, will be filmed as they campaign, attend real political events across the nation and produce political ads that will be shown on Showtime and possibly on other networks of Viacom, whose CBS News is covering the election.

Robert Greenblatt, Showtime's president for entertainment, said network lawyers sought an advisory opinion from the Federal Election Commission as to whether its plan was legal.

The National Rifle Association complained in a filing with the commission that the producers' plan to feature real political candidates campaigning would wrongly allow Showtime's parent, Viacom which has a political action committee and lobbies Congress to give candidates a voice without having to abide by election rules. But the election commission said the show did not have to comply. To avoid any appearance of conflict, Showtime said contestants must declare that they would not seek office during the series, but they could run afterward.

Even people involved with the show were split about how much impact the contestants would have on the general election if they ran.

Showtime is in too few homes to garner a huge audience. And Mr. Greenblatt acknowledged that the show would probably not have the same audience-grabbing appeal as have the most popular reality shows, in which the subject matter has been quite a bit more racy.

Mr. Cutler noted that Ralph Nader made a sizeable impact in the 2000 election by drawing 2.8 million votes. He said a contestant from the show could have a similar influence.

But Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who is to sit on the show's panel, said he doubted that a popular contestant from the show would have much effect on the election.

Contestants would not have much, if any, time to get on state ballots, and would have to run as write-in candidates, which some states do not even allow. With no group of delegates, they would be at best protest candidates and at worst magnets for wasted votes, he said.

Glen Justice reported from Washington for this article.

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