The upfronts, Gotham’s giddy week for television’s titans, are fading into memory. From Lincoln Center to Carnegie Hall, the hoopla was supposed to showcase, for eager advertisers, the cream of TV programmer’s crop. And yet, like the 30 Rock wiener roast that passed for NBC’s “after” party, the new offerings seem a tad untasty.
Messrs. Grushow, Zucker, Moonves and Braun have missed a breakout hit that could rule a key demo, be produced for pennies, and revive the reality genre with a newsy tilt that tempts death and makes headlines each week.
I’m talking about “Photo Op Fear Factor,” where candidates for office defy humility and attempt daring stunts for manly front-page pictures and fawning water cooler chatter. It could be a ratings magnet come September, when campaigning hits high gear.
When I worked at the White House, I readily proffered events for their photo value, but with a caveat that they be conducted in business attire. A blue suit was, by tradition, the costume of presidents. That rule is, apparently, history. Like the youthful copycats of MTV’s “Jackass,” mature politicians now defy the admonition “don’t try this at home.”
Note the past season’s hits, and misses:
- President Bush, in a flight suit, rekindled his National Guard stint by tailhooking onto the U.S.S. Lincoln in an aging S-3B Viking. Sure, it was within cell phone range of San Diego. Sure, there were safer scenarios aplenty. But — here was the promo — “he was one arresting wire away from plunging into the Pacific!” With a sun-splashed, half-hour hijacking of the nation’s airwaves, the White House welcomed this “acceptable risk.”
- North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, in a gambit for the all-important “NASCAR dads,” donned the fireproof mufti of a Winston Cup driver and slammed Jimmy Johnson’s 700-horsepower Chevrolet into the wall at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Sure, the 120 mph crash could have been faster. Sure, Easley’s HANS device softened the shock to his skull. But again, that promo — “watch our governor trash a $100,000 race car!”
If politicians must imperil themselves for votes, why not produce a show around them and hawk some ads? At least, then, network bosses will grouse less over lost revenue when White House producers “ask for time” during May sweeps.
This idea’s got legs. Like Bush and Easley, campaign operatives devise photo ops that burnish their candidate’s image while remaining true to character. It’s humiliating and, of course, dangerous, but oh, those ratings!
For candidates willing to toss decorum to the wind, imagine how the season would grow in jeopardy en route to the season finale:
- Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a sometime hockey player, goes “old school,” sans helmet and facemask, as the Boston Bruins’ new goalie. Fending off screaming slap shots and flying elbows, the senator’s sweater bears the number ’04, recalling, ever so faintly, Boston’s Bobby Orr.
- Senator Bob Graham was born for this. His “work days” alongside Florida constituents included, no joke, being a “stable boy” at Hialeah. We’ll fit his svelte new figure with a set of silks and put him atop Funny Cide at Santa Anita. The great gelding, alas, can’t retire to stud and is eyeing a TV gig after Belmont.
- Dr. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, grabs scrubs and scalpel for a shift in the E.R. at Cedars-Sinai. When an orderly presents a “sealed” set of charts, the good doctor must perform any procedure the diagnosis demands, from Botox injections to a coronary bypass. Noah Wylie guest stars as Dean’s appointed “lifeline.”
Four episodes in the can, and the finale, of course, “will blow … you … away!”
When even presidents strip off suit coats for prime time airplay, “Photo Op Fear Factor” would suffer no shortage of contestants. Compared with audiences for TV debates, this show will march toward syndication.
Overseas versions? The U.S. would be tame by contrast. Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB man and the only karate black belt among the G-8 leaders, might lead the auditions (he also may want to direct).
Finally, every reality skein needs a host.
Who’s a qualified frontman for “P.O.F.F.”? Two men straddle perfectly the worlds of politics and televised mayhem: Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Geraldo “Lines In The Sand” Rivera. Both men might swap their cable slots for a network shot. As the first episode, they could brawl, “Smackdown”-style, for the host’s heavyweight title.
But maybe we’ll hold that for November sweeps.
Joshua King, a political consultant, was director of production for presidential events at the White House from 1993 to 1997.