LOS ANGELES -- Who knew? The summer's best reality television shows turned out to be about politics.
"Who Wants to be a Governor," "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Into Office!" and "Big Brotherhood of Candidates" all were brought to us by California's nutty gubernatorial recall.
"Extreme Ohio Makeover" featured Jerry Springer trying to shed years of talk-show sleaze and regain his youthful political figure as U.S. senator. The sequel: Ohio's ex-congressman and current convict James Traficant eyes a fashion update from prison stripes to presidential pinstripes.
The political circus is in town, and television is avidly covering the big-top action - to the delight of some and discomfort of others.
"You love stuff like this, because anything that comes along and adds color and liveliness to politics to helpful," said Fox News Channel's Brit Hume, host of the "Special Report" talk show.
"When a guy like (Hustler magazine publisher) Larry Flynt says people should be ready to have a smut peddler who cares, you rejoice, because it's such a delicious quote and soundbite even if you're convinced he's going nowhere," Hume said.
The windfall has dispelled the usual summer doldrums of a pre-presidential election year, he added.
Mark Halperin, political director for ABC News, isn't enthused about covering Flynt's California candidacy, Springer's attempted political rebirth and the nascent Traficant-for-president movement (despite a bribery and racketeering conviction).
"Springer and Traficant and the California recall are certainly a news-o-entertainment trifecta that's drawing a lot of attention now," Halperin said.
"But it's part of a longer-term trend in which the lowest common denominator of our media culture elevates and celebrates these kind of candidates and these kind of political stories over serious political stories," he said.
Politics as spectacle "feeds the maw. It's made to order for substance-free coverage," agreed Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California.
"I have yet to see a story on broadcast or cable which explains in any useful detail how the California budget got to the position it's in" and helped fuel the recall against Gov. Gray Davis, Kaplan said.
ABC's "World News Tonight" has covered the turmoil in the nation's biggest state as a serious event, said John Banner, the show's executive producer. The program has yet to report on Springer or Traficant; with their half-hour time constraint, the evening newscasts tend to minimize the fluff.
But for cable and network talk shows, the call is irresistible.
"The media frenzy that's occurred has been mind-boggling," said Springer spokesman Dale Butland. "I've had calls not just from national media but international, calls from Australia, Great Britain, Holland," he said, since Springer's show airs abroad.
Even more alluring is the California recall drama which featured Arnold "Terminator" Schwarzenegger as a coy would-be candidate, with a supporting cast a movie producer would be hard-pressed to dream up.
"In our 'Hollywood Babylon' segment, since it looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger is taking himself out of the running ... voters have only one logical choice: vote for Larry Flynt," said a wry Joe Scarborough on his MSNBC show last week.
Underscoring the theme of politics as entertainment, Schwarzenegger chose Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" to announce Wednesday whether he would run. And after much flirtation, Springer, once mayor of Cincinnati, announced Wednesday that he would not seek the Democratic nod for U.S. senator from Ohio.
In California, while serious figures such as former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan deliberated running, Flynt and others including busty billboard queen Angelyne jumped in. Some 300 people have taken out nominating papers before the Aug. 9 filing deadline. All it takes to get on the ballot is 65 nominating signatures and a $3,500 filing fee, or 10,000 signatures in lieu of the fee.
"If anyone had doubts before, this week's recall antics clearly put California in the circus tent," one local TV anchor said after Flynt's announcement.
But covering these stories calls for more than a smirk, cautioned TV news veterans. First, you can't lump celebrities together simply because they are unorthodox or would-be candidates, contends CNN's Jeff Greenfield.
While Flynt may be "bogus," Greenfield said, Schwarzenegger scored a political victory last year by backing a successful California ballot initiative to fund after-school programs.
"After the lesson of a guy like (actor-turned-President) Ronald Reagan, people maybe think twice before automatically assuming that somebody coming to politics in an unusual way is necessarily just for fun," he said.
CNN correspondent Candy Crowley, who recently reported on Springer's political aspirations, said she tried to keep the larger picture in mind.
"If you play it for laughs, you dismiss a whole lot of people out there who think it's a good idea. ... The gut feeling of a good number of people in Ohio is that Jerry Springer understands them."
As for the California recall, it "would be just a complete riot if we weren't talking about a state with real educational problems, real financial problems," Crowley said. "It's a serious thing that spawned this three-ring circus."
I think you can have fun with something without making fun of it," she added.
The recall represents a real challenge to cover, said Greenfield:
"Uncharted waters, hell; this is Gilligan's three-hour tour. We've never seen anything like it."
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