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Prime-time politics

They may not all be 'The West Wing,' but politically themed series are getting viewers' attention.

October 26, 2003|Neal Koch | Special to The Times

As the interim president of the United States in the first two episodes of this season's "The West Wing," John Goodman seized control of the White House like a bull in a china shop -- and ratings surged.

Large and in charge, Goodman's Glenallen Walken bombed terrorist training camps, verbally shot back at a press corps that questioned the government-ordered assassination of a foreign leader and humiliated White House staffers, before handing the presidency back to Martin Sheen's Jed Bartlet. "West Wing" leaped to No. 11, up from 24th place for all of last season.

As recently as six months ago, almost no one would've predicted the series would enjoy resurgent ratings -- to say nothing of the fourth straight Emmy for best prime-time drama. Where once it was precisely the kind of hit drama, skewing toward affluent viewers, that networks crave, it and the whole sub-genre of political dramas that it spawned have been in what many thought was fatal decline.

Just as such progeny as "First Monday" (set in the world of the Supreme Court), "Citizen Baines" and "Mister Sterling" (both about U.S. senators) fizzled quickly, so too did "The West Wing" lose its momentum. Starting with a revived GOP that put George W. Bush into the White House, followed by the emergence of younger-focused reality shows like "The Bachelor" that were scheduled against it, by the end of last season the drama seemed as relevant as Michael Dukakis' candidacy. When creator and creative driving force Aaron Sorkin left in early May, people began writing obituaries for "The West Wing" and the whole idea of politics as a centerpiece of prime-time dramas.

Yet politics is proving to be surprisingly resilient in prime-time dramas. Credit the much-hyped blurring of politics and entertainment that came with Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory in California's gubernatorial recall election and an earlier-than-usual start to the next presidential election season.

Whatever the reason, more shows featuring political conflict have been developed in the last two years than ever before, estimate some industry executives and observers. Politicians now often appear, contributing dramatic tension, in shows from other genres.

NBC, which might've been scared off by the struggles it had with "The West Wing," instead cast "Wing" refugee Rob Lowe in D.C.-set "The Lyon's Den," while HBO gave its coveted Sunday-night spot to "K Street," set in the world of Washington lobbyists. Even though neither show has made much of a dent with viewers, they nonetheless are but the most visible of an active development process with politically tinged shows that suggest at least some networks think politics can compete with cops, docs and courts for viewers' loyalties.

"Suddenly, politics is no longer just the stuff of C-SPAN," says Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at the University of Syracuse. "It's become the stuff of soap operas."

"There is a tremendous change" with "West Wing" and HBO movies, such as "The Gathering Storm," about Winston Churchill, agrees Robert Caro, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. "The level at which politics is portrayed is much higher than it's been before."

This evolution has been part of an aggressive campaign by the networks to lure upscale viewers, says David Poltrack, CBS' executive vice president for research and planning. In an era of fragmented audiences, the big networks are responding to advertisers' willingness to pay more to reach the growing percentage of the population that is affluent and educated, especially since that target has become easier to zero in on with increasingly refined audience measurement techniques.

"It's becoming more who you reach than how many people you reach," says Poltrack. "There are more intelligent dramas on the air now. That includes more political dramas."

"This is good," says Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television. "Part of our national entertainment should include telling stories about our national and civic political life. It's not always going to be done well, but what else is new?"

Until "The West Wing," serious political conflict was generally taboo on prime-time dramas. "Everybody was scared to death to do much in Washington," says Jeff Zucker, NBC's entertainment head. "Everybody thought people would be turned off."

The belief was that viewers would never tune in to shows they thought dealt with legislation and bureaucracy. To succeed, so they thought, dramas must unfold in police stations, hospitals or courtrooms. Bluntly put, drama works "anyplace that somebody can actually die," says Scott Sassa, former NBC president, West Coast.

Besides, no one wanted to risk offending Congress, which could harm business interests of network and studio parent companies. "They just don't want to make trouble," says Newton Minow, the former Federal Communications Commission chairman.

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