Obama, Palin chasing disparate auds in unlikely venues

Although they don’t agree on much, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin share a philosophy regarding television — one that carries a message for anybody looking to use the medium to promote people, products or causes in the modern age.

As President Obama told “60 Minutes,” just going on CBS’ venerable newsmag isn’t enough to reach the scattered, fragmented U.S. population anymore, and that means chasing disparate audiences — without fretting about the prestige of the venue — wherever you can find them.

“I guess my attitude is if I’m reaching people, if I’m talking to them, if I’m engaged with them, whatever the venue, then hopefully that makes people a little clear about what it is that I’m trying to do, and understand the challenges that we face,” the president said.

For Obama, that has meant popping up in places sitting presidents usually haven’t, from MTV and Spanish-language radio to daytime’s “The View” and latenight talk. For Palin, her media mix expands this week from Twitter, Facebook and Fox News to TLC’s “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” making her the third member of her extended family — joining daughter Bristol, on “Dancing With the Stars”; and Levi Johnston, the father of Palin’s grandson) — to explore the wilds of unscripted TV.

More traditional outlets have done some hand-wringing about the propriety of such appearances, but such reservations are so 20th century. Indeed, it’s telling that Palin is doing her show — part travelogue, part family sitcom, part infomercial for the former Alaska governor — with producer Mark Burnett, who helped usher in the anyone-can-be-a-star framework a decade ago with “Survivor.”

That isn’t to say this changing promotional game comes without risks, in part because the rules keep evolving. A side effect of the fragmentation Obama cited is that small groups of viewers forge powerful bonds with hosts and talent, tuning in for them, not who’s in the chair opposite them.

An exchange to that effect could be seen recently on HBO’s “Real Time,” as host Bill Maher interviewed Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly via satellite. One of the few people who can swagger sitting down, O’Reilly boasted that his appearance would inflate the show’s meager ratings.

“Believe it or not, they watch this show for me, not you,” Maher said, to applause from his studio audience. “And I’m always here.”

Just as O’Reilly loyalists watch his show for him, not the guests or the analysts he brings on to parry with him. In that respect, O’Reilly and timeslot rival Keith Olbermann — whose audience demonstrated their allegiance to the host by rallying to his side after MSNBC suspended him — have something in common, too, even if both would likely be loath to admit it.

A few warnings come with this shifting TV universe, whether those in the hot seat (or often, friendly seat) are stars, politicians, activists or athletes.

For starters, know the rules of the show on which you’re appearing. It’s been pretty well established since Bill Clinton first ventured onto MTV that certain stages will yield questions like “Boxers or briefs?” and it’s best not to look like a deer in the headlights.

Don’t assume, moreover, just because a host is known for being funny, he can’t engage in serious conversation. David Letterman, Jon Stewart and even Howard Stern (back in his terrestrial radio days, anyway) could surprise and disarm guests with pointed questions and substantive discussions. And then, of course, Stern would ask about who you’ve slept with.

As for the respectability of various outlets, that’s very much in the eye of the beholder these days, though there is still value in braving unexpected territory and exhibiting a willingness and confidence to address those who might disagree with you.

Of course, purists will argue that hanging around with shock jocks and jesters only legitimizes them, while potentially sullying the luminaries seen alongside them. And isn’t it kind of demeaning for Palin to invite cameras into her house, like a political version of TLC’s Kate Gosselin, with coy caper music playing as a boy visiting her teenage daughter tries to sneak upstairs?

Once, perhaps, that might have been true. But we’ve moved (if not necessarily advanced) into a media age where the likely survivors will be those weaned on “Survivor,” and where “overexposed” has either lost its meaning or, worse, is perceived as a compliment.

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