The Obamas branch beyond TV news shows

by David Zurawik

The Baltimore Sun (MCT)

8 January 2010


President Barack Obama has grilled steaks with the Food Network’s Bobby Flay. He’s filled out his NCAA basketball tournament picks with Andy Katz on ESPN. And he has appeared on Comedy Central as commander in chief demanding that Stephen Colbert get a haircut during the comedian’s telecast from Iraq. Is there a talk show on any channel outside of Fox News on which the president has not appeared in 2009?

Michelle Obama, meanwhile, has shared the PBS stage with Elmo and Big Bird, traded quips with Jay Leno on his prime-time NBC show and waltzed Oprah Winfrey around the White House on ABC to ooohs and ahhhs at the Christmas decorations last month.

Team Obama often uses the word “unprecedented” to describe its actions. Here’s one of its initiatives that really is historic: No first couple has ever spent as much time on television, and none has ever done it in so many untraditional, non-news venues such as ESPN, Comedy Central and late-night talk shows. Brand Obama has set a new record for presidential tube time in 2009 — and the beat continues into the new year.

Sunday night, Michelle Obama added another TV credit to her video resume with a prime-time appearance on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.” The two-hour special, titled “Super Chef Battle,” featured TV chefs Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and Flay joined by Cristeta Comerford, White House executive chef.

Lagasse and Batali competed against Flay and Comerford in harvesting vegetables from the first lady’s White House garden and then preparing five dishes that showcased the vegetables and represent “all-American meals.” Mrs. Obama welcomed the chefs to the White House and helped with the harvest. (The episode repeats at midnight Friday and 4 p.m. EST Saturday.)

“Mrs. Obama’s message to cook and eat fresh food encouraged us to create this historic battle,” says Bruce Seidel, senior vice president for program planning, in explaining his network’s involvement with the White House. “It is a shared mission on our part. The food we eat fuels our bodies to do great things.”

While such use of TV to showcase and extend the brand, as they say on Madison Avenue, seems noncontroversial enough, particularly when it is limited to the first lady, there is, of course, always a political component involved whenever anyone from a presidential administration stands in front of TV cameras with their words and image beamed into potentially millions of homes.

And the White House effort to exploit nontraditional TV venues seems especially relevant with the president being criticized in some quarters last week for not taking care of the very traditional presidential business of appearing on TV as an act of reassurance in the immediate aftermath of an attempted act of terrorism Christmas Day aboard a Northwest flight headed for Detroit. (In contrast, think of Ronald Reagan hitting the airwaves in prime time hours after the Challenger explosion in 1986.)

“I certainly can’t think of another administration that comes close in terms of trying to use the medium of television in order to advance its message,” Ed Henry, senior White House correspondent for CNN, says of the Obama presidency. “Perhaps the Reagan administration would come close, in terms of ‘The Great Communicator’ so effectively using television to directly address the American people and kind of go around the mainstream media. But obviously, the 1980s are light-years away from where we are now in terms of the full spectrum of channels and media.”

Henry characterizes the Obama administration’s relationship to media in 2009 as “sort of a barrage, a full assault from the administration in using various media, but especially television.”

And the award-winning White House watcher adds, “They’re not being hemmed in by traditional television, whether it be the Big Three networks or the cables. Whether it’s doing an interview on ESPN or some of the less traditional outlets for a president, they have made clear that they are willing to put him out there if it suits their interest. ... They’re not afraid to try different approaches. ... And they’ve been very aggressive about it.”

Media historian Phil Seib, director of the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, also places Team Obama in a league by itself in its commitment to the use of nontraditional TV.

“It starts with the Obama presidency having a greater appreciation of the diversity of venues that are available for reaching the public,” Seib says. “But presidential use of television really is an evolutionary thing.”

Seib points to John F. Kennedy as the first to regularly use the televised news conference in his 1960 presidency.

“The technology was available for that during the Eisenhower years, but nobody really thought of it,” Seib says.

The prototype for the Obamas’ forays onto the prime-time entertainment landscape was the 1962 CBS-NBC co-production, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.” CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood accompanied the first lady as 56 million Americans looked on.

“Christmas at the White House: An Oprah Primetime Special,” which was seen by 11.8 million viewers last month on ABC, is the contemporary version with the Obamas. Instead of being co-produced by two networks with a correspondent of Collingwood’s stature (one of Edward R. Murrow’s team of World War II star reporters), ABC’s was produced by and featured Oprah Winfrey as the correspondent.

Candidates for president who used nontraditional TV venues in the past include Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton, who both ultimately captured the White House prize.

In 1968, Nixon appeared briefly in a videotaped spot on the hugely popular sketch comedy show, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” uttering a catchphrase of the era, “Sock it to me.”

Perhaps no moment is more widely remembered from any 1990s presidential campaign than Clinton appearing on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992 playing his saxophone to “Heartbreak Hotel” — and instantly reaching an audience of young viewers.

“In that same tradition, Obama and his people understand that you have to constantly pop up in all these different venues like ESPN and the Food Channel and Comedy Central because the audience has become so segmented — so chopped up,” says Seib, the author of eight books on politics and media. “It used to be if you wanted to reach the majority of the American public, you just called up Walter Cronkite and said, ‘Come on, we’ll give you a half-hour in the White House.’ And that was it, you were done. But that’s a long time ago now.”

So how is the White House’s groundbreaking use of TV working out — for the administration and the country?

“When you look at the first year of this administration, even the president’s critics would acknowledge that for the first 100 days or so, this president was very effective in using television as a medium to get his message out, to communicate to the American people mostly about the severity of the financial crisis and what he was trying to do to turn it around,” CNN’s Henry says.

“I think, however, even the president’s supporters, just to flip it around, would have to acknowledge that in the middle of the year, there were some questions whether he was still getting his message out as effectively. He seemed to be on every day, sometimes multiple times, pushing health care, and he wasn’t getting a lot of traction.”

By September, when the president launched another TV blitz that included appearing on five Sunday morning talk shows on the same day, as well as a visit to David Letterman’s “Late Show,” the questions and criticism of the White House commitment to TV widened.

“If ubiquity were the measure of a presidency, Barack Obama would already be grinning at us from Mount Rushmore,” Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman wrote. “The president’s problem isn’t that he is too visible; it’s the lack of content in what he says when he keeps showing up on the tube.”

New year, new slate. But so far, it looks to be the same Team Obama TV story.

//Mixed media