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Why Are Americans More Interested in Reality TV Than Presidential Politics?

Aired August 23, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, with millions set to tune into the final episode of "Survivor," why does it seem more people are interested in voting people off the island than in voting for the president of the United States?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, in Los Angeles, Jerry Nachman, executive produce of "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher"; and in Seattle, radio talk show host and film critic Michael Medved.

ROBERT REICH, GUEST CO-HOST: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Robert Reich, filling in this week for Bill Press.

Now, starting 30 minutes from now some 40 million Americans are expected to be watching the final episode of "Survivor." If you don't know about it, you've been on a desert island. That's where 16 ordinary Americans were dumped months ago with a million dollars awaiting the one who outlasts all the others. It's called reality television, and more people are watching than watch the political conventions. And more people are gossiping about Richard and Rudy, Susan and Kelly than are talking about George W. and Al.

Is this because reality television is more real, more spontaneous, more unpredictable, more in tune with people's lives than America's stage managed focus groups, photo-ops, daily spun, blow dried, perfectly scripted politics? Is what we see on "Survivor," the genuine scheming and plotting and backstabbing more like the every day office politics we experience in this Darwinian economy than the fake posturing and positioning we see in national politics? And who is to blame, the media or politicians, or all of us? -- Mary.

MATALIN: Thank you, Professor. Wow. I guess we can go home. He's laid it all out there.

Mr. Nachman, let me say right off the bat, Jerry, that I'm a market force person. I'm for individual choices. If you don't like it, turn it off. However -- and I hadn't seen this, but our esteemed executive producer Jennifer made me watch it today -- and can I say first and foremost, frankly, the show stinks; and secondly, it is -- it just brings out all of the worst of human nature. It's manipulative -- the people are manipulative, and selfish, and opportunistic, and shallow. It's sending the signal that this is a good character, you're rewarded for all of those terrible attributes.

JERRY NACHMAN, EXEC. PRODUCER, "POLITICALLY INCORRECT": Unlike the world you and your husband come from, right, Mary, where everything is upright and rectitude?

You know, this is -- shows like tonight -- I don't mean "Survivor," I mean CROSSFIRE -- is what I like to call the pig in a kosher slaughterhouse format. You really want to do a show about "Survivor," but you can't quite do it, so we're going to do a show on how awful it is. They used to do that to me on "Nightline" all the time when they wanted to talk about Joey Buttafuco (ph), or somebody like that, and they didn't want to do it, so they would do a show on how the tabloids covered it, or why the tabloids covered it.

I think Secretary Reich's intro had most of it correctly and that is, the reason it's getting a bigger audience than either convention is A) there's more news coming out of "Survivor" than came out of either convention and B) this show, the CBS show is better produced.

MATALIN: But it's -- Jerry, look, it's spawning -- and you've been a responsible journalist and you're in a responsible media. It's spawning. And this is a danger, too -- a plethora of these fake reality shows. This isn't real reality, there is no 16 people eating rats.

Fake shows like this -- and just bare with me for a second -- "I Want A Divorce," where real life divorcing couples compete against each other for their own property. Or how about this? "Chains of Love," in which a woman is chained to four men and must let go of one man until the day she's left with her dream date. How about this? "The Mole," a game where a group of people try to compete in a series of tasks, and it ends up one guy is a mole and he subverts the task.

The point is it's spawning these TV -- these shows that are showing the worst side of us. We will get to politics in a minute. Why don't we have more shows like "Touched By An Angel," which I can watch with my kids, which I can talk about? Isn't there some responsibility of TV to do that kind of programming?

NACHMAN: Well, there is, but unfortunately, networks like the one you and I are on now have become kind of the Salvation Army of television and journalism in that you guys are the soup kitchens. Those of us who used to be in straight journalism can say, hey, we don't have to give anymore, the Salvation Army opened the soup kitchen. So thanks to CNN and C-Span the commercial networks were able to say, with some righteous, we don't have to do that anymore, there is folks down the street who give away soup and bread to the needy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

REICH: Michael Medved...

NACHMAN: And in a a way it's true that you folks, and I mean that only as a compliment, contributed to that.

REICH: Michael Medved, let me ask you a question.


REICH: Now, I am an unbiased observer here, I don't belong on television, this is not my job, it's not even my day job, it's not my night job, and I'm going to say something -- I'm going to ask you a question that may -- is non-partisan in terms of politics.

Now, look at those conventions if you dared, if you could, if you could stand them, if they were -- if you could keep your eyes open -- weren't they the most boring stage-crafted things, Republican and Democrat? You already knew the winner. It's not like "Survivor." "Survivor" you don't know who is going to come out ahead.

MEDVED: I'm a strange kind of guy, I...

REICH: You knew exactly who was going to come out ahead.

MEDVED: Sure, but I like listening to political speeches and I think there's a lot of drama there and I think, frankly, the conventions were actually pretty well packaged. I think one of the reasons that people do watch "Survivor" who don't watch the conventions is because you can watch "Survivor" directly, you don't have Dan Rather giving you his opinion of what's going to happen or what just happened.

Now, of course it's packaged and it's edited, and -- but the bias in mainstream media in the coverage of the conventions was so striking this time, particularly with the constant repetition at the Republican Convention that there's an illusion of inclusion, that the whole thing is a masquerade ball, you heard that from the media so frequently, no wonder people are cynical, especially when you look at the relatively uncritical coverage of the Democratic Convention. At least with "Survivor," you don't have any apparent media bias in favor of Richard, or Rudy, or Kelly.

REICH: But, Michael, quite apart from media bias -- I mean, look at what NBC did at the Republican Convention -- you just alluded to it -- it blew off Colin Powell Monday night for a rerun of "Third Watch" and that attracted 10 million viewers, and then when it ran Dick Cheney's vice presidential acceptance speech on Wednesday night, there were only 5 million viewers. Now, look at -- it's the people out there who are telling the networks this is truly boring, we don't want to watch this. Isn't it?

MEDVED: Yes...

REICH: Michael?

MEDVED: I'm having a tough time hearing you. I think there's a problem with our connection. It's one of the terrible things about live TV. It happens sometimes. I think that people do find politics boring, but it has been ever thus. I will tell you, if you take a look at the ratings for talk radio, the field in which I work, there's no evidence of people tuning out at all, I mean, people are listening -- nearly 20 million people a day listen to Rush Limbaugh, I get about 2 million people who listen to my show, and frankly, people are passionately involved in the political process. There have always been a large number of people who have chosen to tune out on politics. I'm not sure that many of the people who are watching "Survivor" aren't just voting with their feet, saying that well, we really don't care that much about the political process.

MATALIN: But, Jerry, let me speak to this because this is a legitimate role for, particularly, TV that is on the public airwaves, that -- it is shown in study after study that interest increases and knowledge increases, it's sparked by the coverage, OK? That when people tune -- inadvertent viewers tune in their interest in the campaigns is sparked. That is a public service. The rate of viewers...

NACHMAN: Well...

MATALIN: Go ahead.

NACHMAN: It was true, Mary, and I agree with Secretary Reich. There used to be a story there. I mean, you and I can go back before we were in this business. I can remember driving over here watching the '64 convention in Atlantic City, where Lyndon Johnson kept Bobby Kennedy away from there because he was afraid that the convention would run away and nominate the martyred brother's -- the martyred president's brother, and I remember when Bobby Kennedy was finally introduced, the place went wild for 22 minutes and he just stood up there and he kept going, "Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman," and it was one of the most dramatic things I ever saw. And you get to '68 and what happened inside and outside in Chicago, and '72 in Miami -- I mean, there are memories from every convention -- '76, "I'm Jimmy Carter and I want to be your president," in '84 I was in San Francisco watching Jesse Jackson saying...

MATALIN: OK, we're not going to -- I know you've covered a lot of conventions, but Jerry...

NACHMAN: But I'm saying -- what -- in the year 2000 in the last two weeks here is my memories, Mary, Chaka Khan at the Republican National Convention, and Al Gore gave a real big smooch to his wife. That's what happened, and that's not the media's fault.

MATALIN: All right, but here -- Jerry, it's not -- but here's the reality and the responsibility of the media: according to Kathleen Hall Jamison (ph), prolific scholar, more than half of Americans did not know enough about either of these candidates to make an informed choice in November. Twenty two percent -- since 1952, over 22 -- as an average -- 22 percent of the people make up their minds during the convention. It is a public service. It doesn't have to be news.

NACHMAN: But there is no story there any more. There used to be platform fights, there used to be fights over nominations, there used to be the freedom delegates trying to get credentialed, there used to be at least a little bit of a cliffhanger on who the vice president was going to be. It's not the media's fault that the political parties decided that these things were going to be like wrestling on TV, or infomercials. There is no story.

You know, Mary, once upon a time newspapers had shipping reporters who went out and interviewed the people who were coming in on the liners. That must have been a great beat. You went out there on a little boat and you talked to the businessmen about what happened in England, and there was some starlet who sat on the steamer trunk and crossed her legs and posed for pictures. Well, those guys went out of business because there was nothing left to cover. There is nothing left to cover in these conventions.

REICH: Michael -- Jerry -- Michael, doesn't the problem go way beyond conventions. I mean, it's all about our national politics today. It is so scripted, it is so blow dried, it is so contrived that everybody knows exactly what candidates are going to say. It's a kind of op -- photo-op politics we have today. People -- you know, people loved John McCain and they loved Bill Bradley because there was something authentic and genuine. And what happened?

MEDVED: Well, I think that it's very easy for people to feel this false nostalgia. The idea of packaged candidates and misleading packaging is as old as American politics. I mean, in the election of 1840, William Henry Harrison ran as the log cabin candidate and he was the son of the governor of Virginia, who was born in a mansion in Virginia. I mean, this is as old as American politics has ever been. I think that what you will find is that people begin speaking about the issues, as I think both candidates did very effectively in their acceptance speeches.

Look at the real convention bounce that Al Gore got and that George W. Bush got. That indicates to me that people are paying attention. Maybe they're not watching the speech in its entirety on network TV, and that's a shame, but at least they're getting some message from the soundbites. And it's always been difficult to get politics across in the culture smog, now with all of the networks and the cable services and the distractions it's harder than ever.

MATALIN: All right, if you're amongst those who are cynical about politics and just hanging on your -- until "Survivor" comes on, when we come back, we'll tell you whose fault it is, the media, or the politicians, or both.

And after the show, you can chat with -- online with both of our guests at Stay tuned.


MATALIN: Welcome back to real reality TV, where we are debating fake reality TV. Can politics survive if they can't draw "Survivor" size audiences? And who is to blame for the languishing interest in politics, the media or the politicians?

For insight, we turn to two expert observers of and participants in politics, media, and the culture at large: former news director, currently executive producer of the gigantic hit, "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," Jerry Nachman; and award-winning film critic and radio talk show host, Michael Medved -- Secretary Robert Reich, Professor Robert Reich...

REICH: Your majesty, please. MATALIN: All knowing, all seeing Robert Reich is sitting in all week for Bill Press -- Professor.

REICH: Michael, I want you to just hear one thing, just take a look at this, or listen if you can this little clip we have.


MARK BURNETT, SUPERVISING PRODUCER, "SURVIVOR": ... very uncomfortable in the outdoors, but they are really surviving the politics of the tribal council, they're surviving the politics of each other. So it's like office politics all over America cubed.


REICH: Office politics all over America, Michael. People watch that "Survivor," they watch that tribal council, they watch people being banished. They have lay-offs, they have office cooler politics. Isn't that reality for people in terms of American politics?

MEDVED: Sure, we have lots of people in the office wandering around in bikinis, or in the case of Richard, wandering around nude and eating rats. No, it's not reality! It's better than reality. The people are better looking, they're less dressed. And that's a great deal of why "Survivor" has sold. Now, "Big Brother" came out, Bob, and "Big Brother" -- on the same network, they tried to package it together with "Survivor," it was a big flop, precisely because it didn't have this Robinson Crusoe atmosphere. This is fantasy, it's fun, it's a distraction. I don't really believe that this is some indication of the end of Western civilization as we know it. Do you remember an old show when we were kids called "The Millionaire"? Do you remember that?

REICH: Absolutely. I watched it faithfully.

MEDVED: Right. It was the same kind of thing, but that was a fictional show about how people's lives change if they're suddenly given a million dollars.

REICH: No, no. But Michael, here you have deceit and stab of the back strategy. You have alliances, you have Richard...


MEDVED: You had in that "Dynasty." You had that in "Dallas."


MEDVED: You have that in "Dynasty," you have that in "Dallas," you have that on every single soap opera. People love that kind of stuff and they've loved it since the ancient Greeks, for goodness sake.

NACHMAN: But you also had it in the "War Room," which was the documentary about the 1992 Clinton campaign.

MEDVED: No, they were absolutely pure, Jerry.

NACHMAN: I disagree.


NACHMAN: Let me say this, though, and this is your area, Michael. But Bill Maher pointed out something wonderful over the last few weeks as we did those shows, they are not reality shows in one sense. As soon as you aim a camera at someone, whether it's me in Los Angeles, or Bob Reich in Washington, or a bunch of people in tatters in some island in the South Pacific, the behavior changes.

And it was a big magazine photo of a bunch of survivors wading out of the water and it showed the TV crew covering them, and there were two or three camera people and 8 or 10 technical people, and so obviously people, when they know they are on television -- and, of course, those of us who are in television are laughing about the fact that while they're trying to suck every bit of juice out of a mango, or spear a fish, or eat a barbecued rat, the cameraman who is shooting them is standing behind the camera eating a Big Mac, because they're not starving. I mean, you know, they're the TV camera guys.

MEDVED: But I think you make a very important point, and this can be related back to politics as well. That's one of the reasons I think all this talk about Al Gore's -- quote -- "spontaneous kiss" of Tipper -- I mean, you've worked in TV. You know that they knew -- it had in the script, "kiss at this point." They had to get the camera angle right.

REICH: Not a kiss like that.

MEDVED: Al Gore just as much exposed to the camera as the people on "Survivor" is no more natural and spontaneous than the reality of it.

NACHMAN: No, I think that you're right that the prompter said "kiss" in parentheses. But I think that there was like a pheromoneal rush there, that it wasn't scripted as that kind of smooch. I'm going to give them credit, they were -- that was a mishap of hormones, I like that.

MATALIN: Jerry, can I ask you to go back to an earlier point you made, because I don't care if "Survivor" is on, I only care that politics isn't. And you earlier were saying it's not the media's fault, it's the politician's fault. But here's what is the media's fault, as chronicled by scholars for the past 40 years. The -- since -- and you sound like you've covered every one of these campaigns -- the negativity of the press does not comport with reality. It's three times more negative than what the candidates are doing, and the favorable evaluations of the candidates since the '60s has decreased. I don't want to give all the statistics, the point is the negativity of the press is increasing, the substance is decreasing and it's causing a public cynicism which is translating into lower voter turnout. Doesn't the press have a responsibility for that?

NACHMAN: I think you are onto something there, Mary. And I think that one of the things that changed over the years is the demography of the press. The people we're watching covering these elections are not typical Americans, they are not typical anything. The anchors are millionaires, and the reporters make many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and they're not part of any cohort demographically that makes them typical. When you look at the old- timers and when you look at Jack Germond, who looks like me, you know, chomping on a cigar and having -- I mean, he represented the average person in Baltimore who read his column.

And today with the meganetworks -- and you are right, Mary, and I thought about this last week, at one convention, I don't know whether it was '76 or '80, I realized that in order to cover the conventions successfully, you had to be a TV star, you had to be a network star, you had to have that all-purpose convention floor pass just like you were covering The Rolling Stones. And I realized it had become the business of celebrities covering celebrities, and it's one of the things that the old-timers are bemoaning. There was a column last week that Jack Nelson says this is his last one, and Jack Germond said this is his last one, because you can't just cover these things anymore, which meant hanging out and having a beer.

MATALIN: All right, well, Jerry, I think you're a lot -- You know what? I'd hang out with you anytime for a beer. You are a lot more handsome than Jack Germond. Thank you for joining us. Michael Medved, still holding his audience despite this decrease in political -- all things political. Thank you both for joining us.

And when we come back, Robert Reich and I will give our closing comments on -- Is it politics? Is it the media? Is it you? Who is it? Stay tuned.


REICH: Think you can survive an online chat with both our guests? They'll take your questions right after tonight's show at

And Mary, let me tell you what worries me, I -- you know, remember we -- during McCain and Bradley's brief interlude, that brief campaign, we talked a lot about authenticity. Remember that word? Authenticity.

MATALIN: Yes, I remember (UNINTELLIGIBLE) saying I don't have any.

REICH: People were craving something about politics that was real, and you know, even that kiss the other night -- I think people responded to that because they said to themselves, that's the first really spontaneous thing we've seen, it felt real, by golly, I'm going to remember that. Now you -- look at the look on your face.

MATALIN: You know what? Call me a Midwesterner, I don't care -- I wouldn't care if that was a Democrat or Republican. It was repugnant. I don't like public displays of affection, but I guess they are OK in your party. Look, this -- the way -- why -- the politicians are scripted is because the media -- they have to fit what the media will cover. And you know there is so much idealism. There is so much passion amongst your political colleagues -- I can't believe you are taking this position, but I take Michael Medved's point that a lot of people are turning off on mainstream coverage because they see the bias in it.


REICH: They're turning off on politics...

MATALIN: Three and a half more hours of coverage for the Democratic Convention.

REICH: The tribe has spoken.

From the left, sitting in for Bill Press, I'm Robert Reich.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin.

Join us again tomorrow night for more CROSSFIRE.



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