The seemingly endless parade of reality-based television shows took an interesting turn this week when executives at the FX network unveiled their plan to adapt the talent search theme used by shows like “American Idol” for the political arena. In January 2004, viewers and audience members of the new show “American President” will begin the process of choosing their favorite presidential candidate from among 100 handpicked qualifiers.
Potential qualifiers will have to fill out a questionnaire, produce a promotional video, and collect 50 signatures on a petition supporting their candidacy. Oh yes, they must also be natural-born American citizens who have lived in the United States for the last seven years and be at least 35 years old as of Jan 20, 2005 (this is according to the Constitution, not the rules of the show.)
Viewers will help eliminate a few of the contestants each week, and will pick a winner from among three finalists in the summer. The final episode, which will air around July 4, will fill the role of an American Candidate convention. The winner will have to decide at that point whether he or she wants to run an actual campaign for the real election in November.
I admit that at first blush I thought this was a terrible idea. I am not a fan of reality shows in general, and I think politicians already behave too much like actors who portray politicians on TV.
But, on reflection, I realized that, like it or not, we live in a world dominated by the media, and if this silly program gets people more tuned in to the political process then maybe it’s not such a bad thing.
Besides, I don’t think the method that is currently used to nominate presidents is particularly superior to the one proposed by “American President.” Just look at the candidates we’ve been forced to choose from in the last few elections. Could we really do much worse than the lightweights who have slugged it out over the last few decades?
And let’s face it; most of us don’t really have much to say about who the Democrats and Republicans choose to represent them in presidential contests. Once the hard-core party insiders and deep-pocketed contributors anoint their chosen one, the primary elections are largely a formality.
So we get stuck with Bush vs. Clinton, Clinton vs. Dole, and Gore vs. Bush, and most of us yawn our way through the campaign and vote for the guy who annoys us the least (which is often a difficult call, as evidenced by the last election.) We seldom feel a connection to the nominees, because we feel like outsiders in the nominating process.
But this show represents a unique opportunity for Americans to select a presidential nominee in a broad-based, democratic forum. The show will allow us to participate directly and immediately in the political process in a way we have never experienced before.
For the first time, we will be able to pick up the phone or log onto the Internet and say, “I want to vote for that guy, because he looks like George Clooney.” OK, so maybe we won’t get better candidates this way, but we might get candidates with better hair.
And with any luck, the chosen candidate will be single, and after the election FX will be able to spin the show off into “Who Wants to Marry the President?”