“Access Hollywood” and The Big Get

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All week, as “Access Hollywood” has aired its exclusive interview with the Obama family bit by bit over four nights, seasoned political pros have watched with a combination of envy and scorn.

There was the familiar refrain, Well, of course they would do “Access Hollywood…” — an unabashedly soft news show that, along with “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Insider” and “Extra,” are now regular parts of campaigns’ media agendas. Strategists are learning to capitalize on showbiz magazine shows and late night talk in the same way that Ronald Reagan’s team mastered photo ops a generation ago.

But the gripes over the interview extended to another argument: The Obamas were putting their kids in the limelight, after initially saying they would not. The candidate himself expressed regret that they brought in the children.

Yet in an exclusive interview with Tammy Haddad’s National Journal radio show today, correspondent Maria Menounos and “Access” senior news producer Steve Forrest dispute the notion that the Obamas were exploiting the kids for political gain. (The transcript of the interview is here).

Menounos tells Haddad, “I think that’s totally wrong. They did not exploit their children. If anybody was there, like we were, they would know. It just was something that just happened. It was everyone feeling comfortable. ….And, you know, everyone’s trying to justify why, you know, they didn’t get it. When we don’t say anything when they get big interviews. Like we’re not like, “Oh, they went to this show because of XY and Z.” Let things be.”

In fact, there was no magic trick. As they explain to Haddad, Menounos and Forrest landed the interview with a combination of persistence and luck. The former came from months of inquiries to the Obama campaign; the latter came from the fact that Sasha and Malia had a good rapport with Menounos and her business partner, Kevin Undergarro, and that the kids were fans of “Access Hollywood.”

By the time that Barack and Michelle Obama sat down for the interview, Menounos says, “all of a sudden they showed up and they popped some mikes on and we had known at that point, just minutes before the interview, that the girls may join to talk about the Jonas Brothers, because they were big fans of the Jonas Brothers, they knew that they were on our show frequently.”

A few months ago, I wrote of this phenomenon of the election cycle: shows that once covered Hollywood turning their attention to the 2008 race, to the point where not a week goes by where one candidate or another doesn’t appear on “ET” or “Access.”  Campaigns have woken up to the fact that it is a way to reach audiences that they otherwise may not, and that they have a much better shot at getting a flattering story out of it.

Indeed, watching the Menounos interview, it’s hard not to like the Obamas, to the point where even cyncial eyes may have trouble controlling the “awwww…” at the sugary parts. There was not a hard hitting question in the bunch. “Do you get ragged on a lot?”  Menounos asks the candidate, after some teasing from Malia and Sasha and Michelle.

Menounos, and producers from “Access” and other shows, don’t purport to be anything other than soft news and softball questions. They make Jay Leno look like a polemic, and oddly enough, the interviews are perhaps so soft there is still something that makes me want to watch.

The hard vs. soft debate is beside the point. As Menounos tells Haddad, what else other than a soft question is she going to ask the Obama children? What they are presenting is the candidate in a different environment than you’d see elsewhere. If “Access Hollywood” non-political viewers want to know about Brad and Angelina’s fashion sense or what the Jonas brothers are up to, why shouldn’t they at least get some exposure to the family that may occupy the White House?

The “Access” team knows that they are part of a campaign’s media gameplan, showing the human sides of their candidates. They are also aware that this year, candidates sell, as ratings for “Access” have been up 20% this week, Forrest told Haddad.

That is especially irksome for a reporter who has been on the trail from the start, waiting for any kind of extended sitdown. But the fact is “Access” got the big get, and unless the Obamas have lost all sense of proportion, it is unlikely that the family will appear together for an interview again this campaign.

In a year where so many media rules have been rewritten, these star-driven shows are now a part of the process, like it or not.

The Obama family interviews on “Access Hollywood” are here.

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