Latest Column: TV’s Daytime Swing Vote


Tedcol_obamasWith Ann Romney set to co-host “Good Morning America,” daytime television is becoming a new battleground in the presidential campaign. It is even more important this year, as candidates aim to reach women in viewing audiences that are more fractured and maybe even fickle than ever before. That’s my latest column in the print version of Variety, below.

President Obama was in New York recently to speak to members of the U.N.
General Assembly. Along the way, however, the prez found time to appear
on ABC’s “The View,” with wife Michelle — a decision that drew some
heat from mainstream media orgs for prioritizing daytime TV ahead of
international policy.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney’s recent guest spot with
wife Ann on “Live! With Kelly & Michael” got some blowback when the
Republican nominee shared his thoughts on … Snooki. How presidential is
that?

Despite the grumblings of so-called hard-news orgs, these
appearances illustrate the growing importance of such shows to campaigns
that increasingly are targeting their messages to reach specific voter
groups — in this case, women. And with polling showing a marked
difference in candidate preference between women and men in the coming
election, it’s easy to see how stopping in on prime access or scheduling
an interview with People magazine can wind up in the political bucket
list.

The National Journal’s Ron Brownstein points out that
Democrats have been particularly aggressive in reaching out to the
“waitress mom” vote (women without a college degree), and have gone well
beyond the 24-hour news networks and local newscasts in their
advertising buys. “The Obama campaign has heavily targeted its ads on
daytime shows that attract a large audience of downscale women,
including programs like ‘Judge Judy’ and ‘Dr. Phil,’ and networks like
Lifetime, Bravo and the Hallmark Channel,” Brownstein wrote.

Whether
one classifies these ad buys as “downscale” or “upscale,” the allure of
such shows is that they reach a defined demographic, and the shows
themselves provide formats more suited to humanizing a candidate than
hitting them with a prosecutor’s list of questions.

When
“Entertainment Tonight” landed an interview with the Obamas in August,
with Nancy O’Dell dispatched to the Iowa campaign trail, members of the
White House press corps griped that the president hadn’t formally taken
questions from them for more than two months. Obama spokeswoman
Stephanie Cutter defended the decision by saying that “ET” and other
entertainment media were equally important to harder news orgs. “I think
that’s where a lot of Americans get their news,” she said.

Linda
Bell Blue, executive producer of “Entertainment Tonight,” says that the
hubub over their interview “tickled” her. “I understand how it feels if
you don’t have the story,” she says. “But it feels great to have it.”

“Entertainment
Tonight’s” audience is about 65% to 70% women, Bell Blue says, and
according to Nielsen, it had 4.8 million viewers in its most recent
week.

The candidates also made the “ET” rounds in the 2008
election cycle, when the show landed interviews with not only John and
Cindy McCain, but also a rare joint interview in Detroit with the Obamas
and Joseph and Jill Biden. “My granddaughters will think I have finally
made it,” the future vice president said to Mary Hart.

This time
around, “ET” has requested a joint interview with the Romneys and Paul
and Janna Ryan. Bell Blue says that the Romney campaign, having had to
postpone its planned interview in August, understands the importance of
an appearance. “ET” did interview Ann Romney in late April, talking
about her struggles with MS and her “love story” with her husband.

“I
think both sides realize our viewers are very important to them, that
it is an audience that they may not be able to reach,” Bell Blue says,
citing the show’s mix of working women who may bypass the evening
newscasts. “(The candidates) realize this is another way to get their
message out.”

The show also inquires about the kinds of things
that others likely would not: The August interview with the Obamas was a
mix of personal questions and pop culture references. The president
talked of George Clooney, and the first lady said she had not read “50
Shades of Grey.”

That’s not to say daytime shows focus on the
frivolous. “ET’s” O’Dell asked Obama about the most pressing controversy
of the day as well — a comment Biden had made at a campaign rally that
painted the GOP’s drive to deregulate Wall Street as an effort to put
workers “back in chains.” The president dismissed the controversy as
“just sort of a WWF wrestling part of politics.”

Michael Gelman,
executive producer of “Live! With Kelly and Michael,” says that daytime
shows have become savvier, and that more have reached out to the
campaigns. “Live,” too, is predominantly watched by women, but it also
includes viewers outside the 9-5 workaday world, which also includes a
wider mix of seniors, students and those who work at home, as well as
the underemployed and unemployed — segments that are perhaps
susceptible to an alternative message in a faltering economy. A hurdle
for the Romney campaign has been to humanize the candidate. So the
“Live” interview covered three segments in which, among other things,
Ann Romney shared stories of walking in on George W. Bush having a
massage, and her husband shared that he wears “as little as possible” to
bed.

Gelman says he was surprised at their candor. “For the
candidates, it is a huge audience of women who make a difference and
have a voice,” he says, adding that the show has reached out to the
Obamas to appear as well. “We want to meet them as people, and see them
in a different light.”

The closer it gets to Election Day, the
higher the stakes become, and as much as candidates may like playing it
safe, it may be that the rewards of doing “soft-media” are greater than
the risks. These are, after all, talkshows, and they will be talked
about.

Ironically, Romney’s appearance on “Live! With Kelly and
Michael” ran on the same day that Mother Jones released the “47%
fundraising” video, which includes the candidate sharing his skepticism
about going on “The View,” calling it “high risk, because of the five
women on it, only one is conservative, and four are sharp-tongued and
not conservative.” The comment had not been out in the ether for more
than 24 hours before Romney agreed to appear on the show, some time this
month.

By then, it was clear to his campaign that there was a
greater risk than going on “The View”: not going on, and being talked
about by the show’s hosts anyway.

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