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The Clinton Audition for a Hollywood Career

August 28, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY

May 2: News reports say Bill Clinton is in preliminary discussions with NBC to host a daytime talk show, which would pay the former president millions.

Aug. 21: News reports say Bill Clinton is in preliminary discussions with CBS to host a daytime talk show, which would pay the former president millions.

Given that interval, expect to hear rumors about the former president hosting an ABC companion to "The View" around Dec. 10, then another flurry regarding a Fox late-night show (perhaps paired with Jillian Barberie, to attract that younger demographic) in late March.

Despite skepticism that such a deal will ever happen, the idea of Clinton raking in millions thanks to his mastery of television hardly sounds far-fetched--especially if you take into account show-business folk's almost comic infatuation with the political class and Clinton in particular. Sure, executives hobnob with movie stars, but most approach Clinton like giddy schoolkids.

Not far-fetched, either, because on a fundamental level, the Clinton administration has already earned every penny--the man from Hope having granted studio moguls just about everything business-wise they could have hoped for.

Clinton's two terms in office, after all, gave new meaning to the image of gaudy Hollywood marriages--giving rise to power couplings of the corporate variety. Westinghouse bought CBS and later dealt those assets to Viacom. Disney merged with ABC. AOL marched to the altar with Time Warner, and so on.

Those unions and others became possible due to the elimination of federal guidelines that had effectively barred a studio from buying a network. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 followed, gutting regulation of cable and telecommunications while dramatically relaxing ownership rules in TV and radio.

Radio underwent staggeringly rapid consolidation, as more than half of U.S. stations were sold in the next five years and a single company, Clear Channel Communications, amassed over 1,200 outlets. The number of TV owners dwindled as well, including more "duopolies," where one entity owns two stations in the same city.

The Clinton administration also supported legislation coveted by film studios to extend copyright protection and to safeguard copyrighted material on the Internet--areas where billions of dollars potentially hung in the balance.

Sure, Clinton held Hollywood's feet to the fire--albeit at a safe distance, so no one need worry about getting burned--on such issues as educational children's programming and formulating a system for rating TV content, but that represented a standard quid pro quo: You guys give me a couple of "family values"-oriented concessions to campaign on, and we'll scale back regulation pretty much to your heart's content.

"The commercial entertainment industry did real well during the Clinton years," said Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of the book "Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times."

Although Republicans are more often associated with that sort of pro-business stance, differences between the parties on media policy amounts to "one inch on a mile-long field," McChesney said, due to the influence of money and lobbying. Against that backdrop, he called Clinton's push for the V-chip and other reforms "small-potatoes stuff" compared to matters with more serious financial ramifications.

"They set it up for the Bush administration to come in and knock it out of the ballpark in terms of deregulation," agreed Sandra Ortiz, executive director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication's Center for Communication Law and Policy, who added that the fallout from those changes has led to "the demise of one independent producer after another."

Moreover, conspiracy theorists are quick to point out that most news outlets have remained conspicuously silent on the implications of media consolidation. And while that probably stems as much from laziness and public ennui as anything else, it is true that the news divisions that are largely ignoring these questions are owned by the very conglomerates that benefited from those hands-off policies--among them Tribune Co., which capitalized on the anticipated easing of TV-newspaper ownership rules to acquire the Los Angeles Times.

In short, whether or not Clinton ultimately goes Hollywood, he's earned the stipend. Besides, given the handful of contenders fronting new talk shows premiering next month, it's clear the factory that churns out hosts is struggling to meet demand.

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