Tuesday, July 06, 2004

American Candidate (Showtime): Hunting the Artifacts of American Candidate's Lost Dream

As the last vestiges of the lingering music and the holiday fade, I'm back from tracking artifacts of good ideas gone awry and lost, but I'm still thinking of the past. There's time this week, for us at least, to pause and reflect on how American Candidate became a sham. What Cutler intended, and instead, what happened.

Last weekend, Showtime's American Candidate was tracing figure eights in well-worn paths and back in Pennsylvania again for a second take. They've yet to move beyond the confines of that Eastern time space, but time is running out if they want that red, white and blue bus to make its way across the country. By July 21st, they must be in LA to face voters of a different sort. How many fast stops can they make before they reach the ocean?

I wonder if RJ Cutler watched the fireworks show at Penn's Landing on the Fourth and gave a thought to his independence that he sold (and his soul?) when he made a deal with Showtime's execs.

The Fourth was supposed to be American Candidate's glory. On Sunday, they again played retail politics, this time in festivities ready-made but not for them, pitching to the Philly crowds there to see other attractions. But what's one more display in the midst of so much more to see? Earlier last week, they were in DC, and that was where they were supposed to be to celebrate the holiday. But not hidden away in production booths. No, once upon a time, Cutler dreamed they'd be before the public there and making their own fireworks.


What's needed here is a little history. In this rush of filming, when even reporters "on the campaign trail" haven't the time to stop and think, or check their facts before they repeat the nearest "news" at hand, it's easy to forget the promises that were made and miss the compromises that occurred.

(Oh please, not history, I hear some say. This is reality TV, and everyone knows that kind of show changes every day. All right, let's put this another way. A crime has been committed. We must track back and find the clues that brought us here. The jury has already set a date to hear the case.)

Track back to Fall 2002, when word of RJ Cutler's plans first garnered serious notice in the news. Back then AmCan had big plans with FX. Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC described it as "100 people that none of us have ever heard of [getting] a chance, ultimately, to run for president, courtesy of the FX Channel." And even the The Observer overseas took note.

Cutler wanted to find a young "Abe Lincoln out there, somebody whose vision could turn on the public in an exciting way," and he was willing to spend six months from January to July to let the public find that American Candidate. With that time, he'd start not with 10 but with 100, and "the show would test the true openness of US democracy."

Even then, he knew "We're taught that every young boy or girl can grow up to be president, but we all know that's not really true," but still he was determined to try and in the trying "ask whether or not anyone really can become president." Instead of politics designed to "reward" those already part of the "machinery," Cutler would present a new game.

The hundred would be unknowns from outside the machinery, running in real-time, and "audience members and at-home viewers, voting by telephone and Internet," would winnow them out week by week. Chris Wright called it "The Ultimate TV Candidacy" and wondered if it might be "a wonderful, Marxian chance for the proletariat to rise to prominence," though he added a question in parentheses that we should keep in mind. "Although the elite still control the airwaves, so that wouldn’t go too far?"

The chance is there, though, and people take it. They ask for applications and the chance to be heard. Regular folks with passion who believe in RJ Cutler because of who he is. Despite the misgivings some have about "reality TV," they look at RJ Cutler's past work, and they decide to trust him, to trust that he is serious about this idealistic dream to really try democracy.

Move forward to February 2003 as executive reality begins to set in. It's February, and 100 is now just 18. This time, it's the New York Observer taking a look,
and Jason Gay says RJ Cutler knows how to play the reality TV game, but he "has learned how to negotiate the system without completely selling out."

Although we're now down to just 18, the plan is still to give them time … but less than he once wanted. The hope remains, however, and Cutler tells Gay "The scenario I am allowing myself to hope for is that when you turn on the TV set on Jan. 15, where the 18 finalists are introduced, you recognize one person whose belief system sparks your own and who you find inspirational. …And then over the course of the next 13 weeks, one or more of those people really emerge as serious thinkers with fresh ideas who excite the public and when we announce our winner—if the winner chooses to run for office—that their ideas are taken seriously in the political debate. That to me is as successful as we could dream."

But he's savvy too, and tells Gay, "Look, networks are going to do what makes money. …And what makes money is viewers." He knows how networks play the game and that they go for a "commercial idea" first.

And then it's May 2003 and Cutler and FX part ways. The cost is too high to keep the dream intact and let the people choose as candidates wage extended campaigns. As the New York Times reports "the network decided it could not afford to give the show the resources it would need to be successful," and Cutler says, "We remain passionate and confident about what this program should be." It's an honorable parting as both sides say they want to do justice to democracy.

Then it's Fall and Winter 2003 and Showtime queries the FEC. According to the FEC, Showtime says that it "intends to produce and distribute a fictional depiction of a presidential campaign," that will be "social commentary on the American political system as well as political leadership and character in America in an 'entertaining reality format.'" The candidates will still be filmed over a three to four month period, but they cannot be "testing the waters" for an actual candidacy.

The FEC grants its approval, and by January 2004 the NYT reports that AmCan has found its home. R. J. Cutler tells the press American Candidate is "designed to engage disinterested voters in the political process, which it would not cheapen," and we can still participate as we vote by Internet and phone and follow the candidates week by week.

On January 12th, Cutler tells the Kansas City Star "The Founding Fathers did not envision political professionals running this country," and "They were going to emerge from other walks of life." And the Star reports that "thousands are expected to file. They'll campaign via the Web site this spring and will be winnowed by the public to the 12 finalists who will appear on the show."

In another interview on January 30th, Cutler reassures Bob Garfield that "we're going to take everything we do very, very seriously," and even "we want to be able to reflect upon the role that the media plays, and we want to ask questions about what we're looking for in a presidential candidate."

He says they've received "thousands of requests for applications" and although he doesn't answer the question of how the twelve will be selected, he does give details about how the twelve will campaign. They'll "crisscross the country," and move gradually from a "retail process where the emphasis is on going door to door and meeting people and caucus-like events" to "more of a wholesale process" where "the emphasis will be more on media and advertising and large-scale debates." As Cutler stresses, "In every way our goal is to emulate what happens in an actual presidential campaign."

It's exciting stuff for people who believe politics matters – especially those folks who want to believe that Showtime will be truly giving them a chance, even if they don't have Ivy League degrees, connections, or a previous political pedigree. It's a huge opportunity to take a shot at a closed system and let their ideas be judged by the public, by people like them, not some elite group in backroom where they'd never have a shot.

Then it's Spring again, and changes come so quickly it's hard to tell just what has occurred. 18 candidates become 12. The age requirements of the presidency disappear. 13 weeks drops to 10, then 5 or 6.

But, the applicants still believe it's possible to make this work, and they want to make it work. They want it to succeed. They fill out long questionnaires and make videos they give to Showtime in perpetuity for free, and when the American Candidate website goes active in March, with message boards and slowly appearing candidate pages, many applicants devote still more time to the show – evidence that they care.

They think they're campaigning for the chance to be one of Cutler's and Showtime's 12. They think their efforts matter. They believe Showtime means it when it says "Stand Up and Be Heard," and they hope that their efforts and the show itself will be treated seriously and be given proper attention by Showtime. They want it be the revolution Showtime hypes. One aided by people like themselves who'll fight for the chance to change the status quo and revive democracy.

They believe Showtime exec. Robert Greenblatt when he tells the press that “The ideas upon which this country was built – that anyone can run for public office and each voice counts – seem to be a thing of the past." But, “this show, which is designed to find the ideal ‘American candidate’ from out of obscurity, will try to change all that. In the hands of these extraordinary producers, I think it will have amazing relevance to our country in a presidential election year – and who knows, maybe our winner will actually decide to enter the race.”

As the months pass with almost no word from Showtime except the occasional reassurance that their efforts matter and that they'll hear something soon, they keep trying to spread the word. They wait, patiently, for webpages and blue stars they're told they'll get. In the absence of help from Showtime and American Candidate, they create their own webpages off site. They put forth their views in the forums and work on their messages, even though it appears the boards are only monitored by moderators to delete posts. And even after word leaks out that 24 have been flown to LA for final interviews in May, they keep trying when Showtime and Cutler tell them selection is still open till June.

They keep the faith in an impossible dream.

They keep it long after Showtime and Cutler have betrayed their own faith in the dream, and cut the corners, cut the cost, cut the democracy, cut it all except the bullshit.

They kept it right up until the second week of June, when without a word from Showtime, the chosen TV candidates announced themselves. A perfunctory e-mail from Showtime telling them the obvious – that they hadn't been selected – didn't come until later.

And for the last month, they've known and seen what the press doesn't.

The press reports that thousands applied by the April 9 deadline, but the applicants know that evidence suggests only around 416 actually filled out the full Showtime questionnaire and made videos by that date.

They know what Johanna Neumann of the LA Times and Liz Sidoti of AP "on the campaign trail" do not – that Showtime only chose 10 not 12. That the majority of the ten were far from "obscure" and already had extensive experience with politics. That half appear to have not even applied by the April 9 deadline and were instead privately recruited.

They know that the campaigning resembles nothing like the original plans. That it's rushed, and that Showtime has not allowed candidates to spend more than a few days – much less than a week – in any one spot. That the people – the public Cutler wanted to engage – has oftentimes been put off by American Candidate's seeming disorganization, the lack of information about the candidates, and the lack of care about the communities' efforts or the benefit to them.

They know that in terms of news or coverage resembling real campaigns there is little more than last minute pleas for help sent out to constituencies candidates already had. That American Candidate does not want the public to "See How They Run" at all, until after votes have been cast and the show can be edited and aired. Even if that leaves people in the communities being asked to vote confused.

And now, if Johanna Neumann of the LA Times is correct about the elimination process, they know that the chosen TV candidates themselves, instead of the public, are doing some of the "voting" as to who is eliminated from the race.

What was once conceived of as an open process, designed to open the process to all of us, has gradually become so closed that the public plays virtually no role in it until the end. Then, presumably, we'll get to choose between two we may not even want – just like always.

Showtime's version of a revolution isn't one. It is a far cry from Cutler's original dream, the one he might have thought of on Sunday.


Because once upon time, Cutler dreamed that after months of engagement between the candidates and the public, in an open test of democracy, American Candidate would culminate with a convention on the National Mall in DC. It would be live, on the Fourth of July, and at that convention, three remaining candidates would fight for our votes, and we would choose our candidate.

Some very different fireworks than the dud Showtime's trying to sell us now. Now, it's not democracy. Whether they wise up, and whether it can be made good TV before they must face the jury, remains to be seen.