Presidential race may get 'real'

Showtime considers mock political campaign series

Saturday, December 6, 2003

— Reality television has made stars of barely dressed people competing for $1 million, singers competing for recording contracts, bachelors and bachelorettes competing for love. So why not political candidates stumping for viewer votes?

More than three years after CBS first began broadcasting the reality TV phenomenon "Survivor," Showtime Networks Inc. wants to launch a simulated presidential campaign, to be shown when the actual presidential campaign is heating up next summer. Showtime and CBS are owned by Viacom Inc.

"American Candidate" would feature regular citizens competing in campaign events until one emerges the winner.

Bryan Byrd, vice president of publicity at Showtime, stressed the program still was in the planning stages. "It's something that is being explored," he said. "It isn't a done deal."

As it considers whether to proceed with the idea, Viacom is awaiting an answer from the Federal Election Commission on whether the program could violate election laws.

Showtime said the show would offer a look at the decision-making processes and strains of political campaigns. Each week the candidates would plot strategy, campaign for support, respond to e-mails from viewers and make statements aimed at getting public support.

Contestants would make speeches and participate in debates and press conferences, some authentic, some staged. They'd also devise campaign strategies, produce TV ads, consult with advisers, choose policy positions and try to build public support. Candidates could solicit contributions but would have to give the money to charity.

At the end of each episode, viewers could vote for their favorite candidate by phone or the Internet. The 10- to 12-week series would end with one winner, based on weekly popular votes, polling samples and program judges.

Among the concerns the election commission may address: What if the winner becomes so popular he or she runs for real public office? What if the winner endorses an actual candidate? What if the contestants use their platform to promote or disparage President Bush or his Democratic opponent?

"I don't know what it says about the state of American politics that you might have to get people interested through a reality series," said Larry Noble, head of the Center for Responsive Politics and former FEC general counsel. "But if it gets more people interested in the real campaign, it's not a bad thing."