‘Equal time’ politics prove absurd

Brian Lowry: Tuning In

If Fred Dalton Thompson runs for president, the attorney-actor-U.S-senator-actor-again’s candidacy will dictate that NBC cease repeating any version of “Law & Order” featuring him as avuncular D.A. Arthur Branch. A Thompson White House bid would also eliminate broadcast reruns of “Die Hard 2,” “The Hunt for Red October” and an episode of “Sex and the City.”

A Tennessee Republican with a soothing drawl, Thompson isn’t expected to announce his political plans till May at the earliest, but the complications already flowing from his possible run demonstrate absurdities surrounding the “equal time” rule — a laudable concept meant to promote fairness that’s hopelessly outdated as applied to actors crossing over into politics.

Federal rules state that broadcast stations must provide equal time to candidates, excluding news programs, interview shows and documentaries that don’t squarely focus on the candidate. Were NBC to continue airing Thompson’s “Law & Order” episodes once his name graced an official ballot, the network would have to tabulate his screen time and grant equal allotments to every rival — a cost-prohibitive proposition if there ever was one.

Cable, however, is exempt from these rules — a patently ridiculous distinction. As a consequence, “Law” could keep re-running with impunity on TNT, along with any of Thompson’s 30-plus movies or episodic TV guest stints — a career defined by supporting roles as generals, FBI agents and CEOs, including a casino chief in TNT’s recent biopic “Evel Knievel.” (If this resume seems a dubious template for high office, remember, being the third banana on a cop show is usually perfect training to be vice president.)

Just to highlight the broadcast-cable schism, before April is over, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “Conan the Barbarian” and “Commando” will play 10 times on AMC — presenting California’s governor as a ruthless cyborg killing machine, a ruthless Cimmerian killing machine and a ruthless special forces killing machine desperate to rescue his daughter. In modern screen acting, this is what we call “range.”

How much these roles buttress the governor’s political image as a strong, independent-minded leader — beyond those voters unable to distinguish fiction from reality, anyway — is open to debate. Yet far more problematic in terms of the rules’ intent is unequal access to showcases where candidates can set themselves apart — think Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s show — as opposed to their fictional onscreen persona.

The real injustices, then, reside in the talk/interview space, where star wattage exacerbates separate but unequal candidacies. Consider “Late Show With David Letterman,” where Democratic hopeful Barack Obama popped in April 9 for the kind of flattering, humanizing chat session certainly no Green Party candidate is apt to garner.

This schism reached near-comical proportions during Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign in October. Demonstrating just how non-equal time can be, candidate Schwarzenegger was invited to appear on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” weeks before election day.

Gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides and fellow Democrats cried foul, begging Leno for a field-leveling “Tonight” appearance, only to be rebuffed. The Federal Communications Commission subsequently rejected a petition for equal time (almost 16 minutes, the duration of Schwarzenegger’s “Tonight” spot) on NBC’s California stations, concluding that “Tonight” qualified under the news/interview exception.

Past political bids by recovering actors have yielded plenty of amusing moments, from “The Waltons” being temporarily sidelined in a California district during Ralph Waite’s unsuccessful congressional campaign (“Omigosh! We’re running against ‘Pa!’ “) to victorious runs by the colorfully nicknamed Fred Grandy (Gopher from “The Love Boat”) and Ben Jones (Cooter from “The Dukes of Hazzard”) in Iowa and Georgia, respectively.

The ultimate symbol for the union of acting and politics remains Ronald Reagan, who put his aw-shucks manner, grandfatherly mien and cowboy-tough talk to far better use in the White House than he ever did outside it. In that respect, Reagan wasn’t elected because of “Bedtime for Bonzo,” but leveraged the skills he developed in that movie (well, maybe not that movie) and others to serve him well as communicator in chief.

Should Thompson run, then, it won’t be his no-nonsense image as “Law’s” D.A. or a corporate bigwig in “Barbarians at the Gate” that defines him. Today, a high-profile candidate’s greatest media advantage involves hanging with the Stewarts — whipping up a souffle with Martha, say, or cracking wise with Jon — representative of the best no-equal-time-required showcase that money can’t buy.

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