Presidential race plays as must-see TV

[7 March 2008]

By Ellen Gray

Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

I’m not sure exactly why many TV news people seem so eager to usher Hillary Clinton offstage this election year.

An early decision on a nominee might - or might not - work to the Democrats’ advantage, but it’s bound to cut in to viewership at networks where pundits put in most of their time.

Right now, viewers seem engaged, pushing ratings for all three cable news networks higher and giving MSNBC its biggest audience ever, 7.8 million viewers, for last week’s debate between Clinton and Barack Obama.

But once this thing is wrapped up, a lot of those viewers are bound to wander off for a few months, since anyone with a calendar knows Election Day’s not exactly around the corner.

A Clinton exit would be bad news, too, for TV comedy, particularly the kind practiced at NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which is getting plenty of attention these days for its Hillary-vs.-Obama sketches.

Not only did the senator from New York drop in last week to compliment Amy Poehler on her impersonation, but on Tuesday, the New York Times’ political blog, The Caucus, reported the results of a study that suggested a possible “SNL” effect on the media’s treatment of Obama.

In the week following the Feb. 23 sketch in which Obama, played for the first time by Fred Armisen, is shown being treated deferentially by stand-ins for NBC’s Brian Williams and Tim Russert, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found Obama generated more coverage than usual, and that a lot of that coverage involved his record, the Louis Farrakhan endorsement and the question of whether reporters had been too easy on the senator from Illinois.

Obama, of course, might be wondering if “SNL” isn’t going easy on his opponent.

If “SNL” seems biased toward Hillary, it may have less to do with politics than with players. While Poehler’s nearly pitch-perfect as Clinton, Armisen’s Obama leaves a lot to be desired.

Even if the choice of a guy who’s reportedly part-Japanese and part-Venezuelan to play the first African-American to be a genuine contender for president wasn’t bound to offend some black viewers, it would have to offend black comedians, whose representation on “Saturday Night Live” isn’t overwhelming.

Though Kenan Thompson should probably be grateful he wasn’t forced to starve himself to take the role.

Personally, I could maybe get past that, as I have Darrell Hammond’s spot-on impression of Jesse Jackson, if the otherwise-interesting Armisen weren’t such a dead weight as Obama, maybe looking the part - a little - but not really sounding it.

So far, he seems to have had less to say than Poehler, but that would probably change abruptly if Clinton gets out of the race.

Clinton, meanwhile, seems to be relying on comedy shows to get out her message at key moments, doing CBS’ “The Late Show with David Letterman” on the eve of Super Tuesday, dropping in on “SNL” and then talking to Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart via satellite before Texas and Ohio.

Clinton’s “Daily Show” interview with Stewart, while plagued with satellite delays that the host was still making fun of the following night, wasn’t as absurd as it might have sounded: After holding up her end during some preliminary banter, she got to answer some softball questions before an audience that probably skews a little younger than her base.

Tears might have done the trick in New Hampshire, but in a long campaign, laughter could be a candidate’s best weapon.

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