Fox isn’t singing ‘Hail to the Chief’

Perspectives: Toby Emmerich

Imagine this scene: TV writers sit down with network execs. The writers are pitching a new series — or maybe a new storyline for a hit show. Both pitches end in the same place: The president of the United States is revealed to be guilty of murder, conspiracy and treason, not to mention general creepiness, villainy and a kind of delicious hate-ability that hasn’t been seen on TV since J.R. Ewing.

I’ve been a TV junkie since “Kojak” and “The Streets of San Francisco” hit the airwaves in 1973, but I can’t remember any network show, anywhere, where the leader of the free world is taking the kind of hits dished out in “Prison Break” and “24.”

But the real eye-opener is that fact that the two shows are on the same network: Fox Broadcasting. That’s right, both are financed and distributed by Fox, the sister company of the official news source of Bush’s White House (the one Dick Cheney insists his hotel TV’s are pre-tuned to; the one where Tony Snow used to work before he joined Dubya’s staff).

You’d understand if Comedy Central launched another show that bashes the president — after all, it’s working gangbusters for their “Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” But Fox? Aren’t these the guys with the most to lose from potentially alienating the White House? Do they really want to say goodbye to the perks of being Dubya’s favorite “fair and balanced” news network? (Those perks include an exclusive interview with Dick Cheney explaining how he happened to shoot his 70-year-old hunting partner in the face.)

On “Prison Break,” the vice president conspires to send an innocent man to death row, then orders the execution of various civilian Americans. Finally, when her own political future appears bleak, she poisons the president’s drinking water, resulting in her ascension to the top.

On “24,” the U.S. president has conspired with Russian terrorists to steal nerve gas from the U.S.military. The president’s initial plan, something about convincing liberal forces we need a tougher terrorist policy, goes awry and the nerve gas is released on U.S. soil, where scores of innocent civilians are killed in horrible spasmodic deaths.

We soon discover the president also was behind the assassination of his beloved predecessor, as well as the forced suicide of his closest political adviser. The first lady has some moral issues with her husband’s political machinations, but he’s got an answer for that, too: Using her history of mental illness, he threatens to put her away in a booby hatch and pump her so full of drugs she won’t know her own name.

Even for an anti-establishment armchair conspiracy theorist, all of this seems like a noticeable shift from the entertainment networks’ usual respect for the sanctity of the Oval Office.

You have to hand it to Fox. Knowing senior management’s ties to the real West Wing, you’d think the people on Pico might’ve hesitated before launching separate attacks on two TV presidents.

But they didn’t. Fox’s execs had a higher calling: good storytelling. Network executives are paid to bet on the temperature and taste of the American public. (Perhaps they noticed the money Warner Bros. Records was making selling Green Day’s “American Idiot,” the multiplatinum album with the song “Holiday” and its lyric “Zieg heil to the president gasman.”)

For whatever reason, they had a hunch and rolled the dice on the American public being ready to hate the prez. And this year, as evidenced by the ratings for both “24” and “Prison Break,” Fox bet right.

The Supreme Court just told Bush he can’t hold military tribunals at Guantanamo, but no court in the world can tell Rupert Murdoch how to run his network. So whether they personally love or loathe George W., Fox’s execs do what is necessary to survive — even if it means killing the president.

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