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It's Like 'American Idol'--but for Oval Office

Media: Presidential hopefuls will vie for job in FX reality series. U.S. public will pick winner.


If reality television has proved nothing else, it's that people want to be on television, sometimes desperately, and that they have a willing partner in television networks looking for low-cost ratings.

Thus far, the nation has seen otherwise ordinary folks sing off-key ("American Idol"), humiliate themselves in front of the opposite sex ("Blind Date") and, of course, spend weeks not bathing in foreign lands ("Survivor").

Now, cable network FX plans to use the institution of the presidency to lure more would-be fame seekers, in a reality program whose 10-words-or-less pitch, producer R. J. Cutler told Daily Variety on Friday, goes like this: "It's like a cross between 'The War Room' and 'American Idol.' "

Cutler (along with two others, including Jay Roach, who directed the "Austin Powers" movies), has sold FX a series in which prospective presidential candidates will be found, whittled down by experts and through debates, and voted on by the American public in the same way that "American Idol," which was a summertime ratings hit for Fox, presented a fabricated-on-the-spot pop star.

The show isn't expected to be broadcast until January 2004, the start of the next presidential election year. Like those in real life, anyone who wants to run for president on TV must be a natural-born American citizen who has lived in the country for the last seven years and must be at least 35 years old as of Jan. 20, 2005.

"Ross Perot, Steve Forbes--these guys challenged the status quo, but they had millions and millions of dollars behind them," said FX President Kevin Reilly, striking a note of support for the common man. He wondered aloud how Abraham Lincoln would have fared in today's big-moneyed political arena. Perhaps there's another Lincoln out there, watching cable in his log cabin.

While acknowledging that the show sounds somewhat absurd, Reilly said he hoped it would also illuminate the democratic process, even produce a kind of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" populist who will affect real politics.

Asked whether potential contestants will be asked during the screening process to explain how a bill becomes a law, Cutler, the producer, said: "I'm sure at a point during the process they will have to demonstrate their knowledge of American government." He added, however, that "it will be up to viewers to decide" how informed a president they want.

Cutler was one of the producers of "The War Room," the 1993 documentary on Bill Clinton's first run for the White House--a project that helped turn two animated politicos, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, into media celebrities of the future.

To qualify, Cutler said, hopefuls will have to round up 50 signatures supporting their candidacy.

The series seeds, he said, were planted during the controversial end to the 2000 presidential election, when the U.S. Supreme Court's decision led to George W. Bush's victory in Florida vote.

"I think that a lot of people feel that the two-party system that we currently have is designed to reward part of its own machinery," Cutler said.

Throwing a window onto the inequities of the political process, however, doesn't sound like entertaining television. Thus, the added fantasy of finding someone who dreams of becoming president.

"I think there's a really great show to do about this process for a congressman or senator. I think it's a great idea. In the future, I think that's something we should do," Cutler said.

Informed Friday of the planned project, Democratic political consultant Mark Mellman said: "Let's put it this way. Already, many more people watch C. J. Cregg's press conferences [on the NBC drama "The West Wing"] than watch any of [White House Press Secretary] Ari Fleischer's press conferences. Sometimes the fake world is more entertaining than the real world."

However, he added, referring to "American Idol": "It's one thing to find out there's a great singer that you missed. You're unlikely to find a great president that you missed."

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