Wednesday, July 14, 2004

American Candidate (Showtime): In My Dreams, Fictional Interviews at the TCA

Just in time for their session at the Television Critics Association summer meeting next week, Showtime has finally decided to release the already well known names of the ten cast members. Over one month late.

Perhaps they decided all those reporters who were trusting Showtime's fluff press for the last seven months should at least be given enough "true" information to get the number of cast members correct.

The new press release looks just chock-full of details, but it also raises more questions about American Candidate that I'd just love to ask RJ Cutler and Showtime. In theory, TCA is designed to allow reporters and critics to ask questions and get some interviews. Of course, the odds of Showtime's brass or Cutler speaking with me are about the same as my winning the lottery.

After all, once I started this blog analyzing the distance between what Showtime and Cutler were saying and what they were actually doing, they seem to have reacted rather poorly.

They instituted a press blackout, made the cast clam up and even delete a few blogs they were keeping (and I was using here), reduced the already pathetic public interaction with the cast to laughably miniscule levels, and began deleting posts on the American Candidate message boards that so much as mentioned the name of this blog.

Quite a turn of events considering I was merely following RJ Cutler's advice in his interviews with LA Times reporter Carina Chocano. Chocano published those interviews on May 23 in her article Turn on, tune in ... then go vote. In them, Cutler discussed unsophisticated, "naïve" and "almost foolish" viewers who aren't performing "analysis" on the context of what they're being told, who don't look at things like "what the administration's objective is, what they want you to believe, what they did yesterday, what they're going to do tomorrow." The sorts of viewers and reporters who might, oh, … I don't know … perhaps put some trust in the reputations of Cutler and his American Candidate "advisory board," and because of that "expect that what these guys are really doing and the picture of what they are doing have any relationship."

Yup. I'd love to have that interview. Since it's clear, however, that I won't get it, I've decided to steal a technique from Reality TV. Everybody knows, Cutler's current chosen genre always employs the cut and splice edit. You know, where they take what folks actually said and just move it around a bit to create a fictional sort of story and make a point.

Seems just about right for that interview I'll only get in my dreams, and luckily, I've got Cutler's interviews with Chocano, his more recent repeat comments in the July 12 New York Observer, and his interview with Matt Smith of SF Weekly to work with. So with only a bit more ado, here's my fictional Reality TV interview.


For those journalists who took RJ Cutler's and Showtime's press releases about the show at face value until now, and wound up reporting something that didn't happen, and "spreading the word" for Showtime about a show that bears almost no resemblance to the story they gave you …

And for those hundreds upon hundreds of applicants who trusted in RJ Cutler's reputation and the reputation of the show's "advisory board" (the board whose names are absent from the latest Showtime press release), and invested your spirit, sweat, and ideals into a promise and idea Cutler and Showtime quietly abandoned once they got what they wanted from you …

Try not to be insulted by Cutler's comments below. After all, the show's not a revolution, and unless Showtime and Cutler get a clue real soon, it might not even be good Reality TV.

RJ, as you know, the casting of American Candidate has generated some controversy – particularly because you appear to have chosen a cast that directly contradicts your and Showtime's statements about not only the philosophy behind the show, but also the sort of people that American Candidate was looking for, and even the eligibility requirements and application deadlines.

There also appears to be a disconnect between how you've been marketing the "campaigning," and the ways we can "See How They Run," and what's actually been occurring in the lead-up to and during filming.

Given that, I'd like to focus on these issues and the latest Showtime press release and try to clarify a few things. Hopefully this interview will …

CUTLER: Hopefully, it will illuminate and expose both the limitations and the power of the medium.

VERITAS: Exactly, I'd agree if you're talking about the use of the media by those in power – especially to manipulate both the press and the public. Recently you told Joe Hagan of the New York Observer that " one of the effects of the TV era was a more sophisticated bending of truth among those in seats of power." Would you say that "sophisticated bending of truth" applies to the ways American candidate was presented to the press and the public?

CUTLER: Well, in a way. … But who knows if this is even true in an environment where image might be everything—

VERITAS: Oh, sorry to interrupt you RJ, but Greenblatt's got his hand up over there. Rob, you'd like to say something?

GREENBLATT: 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!

VERITAS: Um … okay … Thanks Rob, and thank you RJ for the disclaimer. Okay, let's talk about image. Like the image you and Showtime presented that convinced regular Joe's and Jill's to trust you, to apply for the show and put so much effort into it when now it seems you really weren't looking for those sorts of candidates at all. Did you mean to use them as window dressing and publicity, and to keep them in the dark about what was really going on until they'd served their purpose?

CUTLER: It was kind of exactly what we had hoped for.

VERITAS: Really. What reality were you simulating there, when you made them believe they had a chance, when they didn't? When you said "The whole philosophy of this show is to make the process available to those who don't otherwise have access to it," but then cloaked the process in secrecy and misdirection.

Was American Candidate trying to illustrate how closed the political system actually is?

CUTLER: It could … We're told that any little boy or girl can grow up to be president, but nobody would ever say that any little boy or girl could actually get on the ballot. And –

GREENBLATT: 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. This show, which is designed to find the ideal ‘American candidate’ from out of obscurity, will try to change all that!

VERITAS: Well, I think we all know, most of your cast isn't exactly obscure Rob, but RJ made a good point there. So, RJ, you're saying that American Candidate's selection process simulates the duping of the public that goes on in real politics.

CUTLER: That's true.

VERITAS: But, once word got out about the ten candidates you'd chosen, and it became obvious they were nothing like what you'd claimed you were looking for, why did you and Showtime keep telling the public and the press bullshit? Did you really think they could be so easily manipulated after the cast went public?

CUTLER: It doesn't take a lot … most people, even in this day and age, are not sophisticated viewers. They're not performing the analysis on all these different things. … And, of course, that’s been exploited by those who are controlling the message …

It’s your own fault if you’re not a sophisticated-enough viewer.

GREENBLATT: We think Montel will bring insight, humanity and even some much-needed entertainment value to the campaign process!


RJ, since American Candidate instituted a blackout after its quick stop in Charlottesville, and you forced the cast who was trying to campaign to stop what little talking to the public they were doing online, could you elaborate using an example that won't violate the secret campaign before you get the chance to edit the footage you've filmed?

CUTLER: If you look at Condoleezza Rice on the "Today" show, and you believe what she says, you're naive. You have to analyze what she says in the context of all sorts of things: what the administration's objective is, what they want you to believe, what they did yesterday, what they're going to do tomorrow. There's no expectation that what she is saying is actually true.

VERITAS: So what you've been doing is kind of like the description you gave Chocano and Hagan of Deaver, where he would get the press to focus on a positive image of Reagan's engagement with citizens, precisely when a program was coming out "screwing" those citizens. The press coverage would counter whatever a few people might be saying in dissent as well as what was really happening.

Kind of like when I publish your past statements that contradict what AmCan's actually doing and what you're currently telling the press, but they get buried by the managed messages you feed the press.

What do you think about that?

CUTLER: It doesn't matter what the text was. And now it's beyond that …

VERITAS: An example from real politics?

CUTLER: …the distance between what they say and what they do. You're almost foolish if you expect that what these guys are really doing and the picture of what they're doing have any relationship. Now, you are naïve if you expect them to be one and the same.

VERITAS: It sounds like you're trying to teach journalists and AmCan applicants a lesson. I know one of your cast claims we need to give people a reason to trust politicians and those in power, but it appears you're using American Candidate to teach folks not to trust them.

CUTLER: My hope is that after watching American Candidate the viewer will be that much more sophisticated when he returns to watching the major party candidates going up against each other.

GREENBLATT: Highly entertaining and really sophisticated!

VERITAS: [Rolls eyes]

So, RJ, the applicants and journalists who did expect that what you were really doing and what you were saying had some relationship … they were as you say, unsophisticated, naïve, almost foolish.

CUTLER: That's true. I take full responsibility for that …


CUTLER: I'm telling you what I'm telling you. … It’s your own fault if you’re not a sophisticated-enough viewer.

VERITAS: All right, let's shift to another topic.

RJ, the latest Showtime press release claims that the cast comes from different backgrounds, but based on the research presented in The AmCan Sham blog, it seems clear that at least 5 of the cast have long-standing careers as political activists, and you can make that 7 if you count the, well, let's call it unusual activism of Mack and Riley. And there are a lot of connections between these "various" candidates.

Wouldn't it be fair to say you actually cast people with one crucially similar background? Would you say that's true?

GREENBLATT: That sort of 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' phenomenon!

CUTLER: It's not true or not.

VERITAS: Hmmm … All right, let's try another topic. The press release claims that "over the course of 10 weeks, they will participate in a fierce competition designed to test their presidential mettle and to show viewers what really goes on in the making of a presidential candidate." But, shouldn't that read something like 6 weeks, and in the past tense? Since the original plans were cut, perhaps due to costs?

GREENBLATT: It's not the cheapest documentary reality show we've done, but it's not the most expensive. A reasonable amount of money!

VERITAS: RJ, to get back to the topic … we know you're going to show episodes over 10 weeks, but according to your own press, the taping will be less than 10 weeks and mostly over by then. Cast members will have already been eliminated by each other after your version of "the people" – like that small focus group in DC – decide which superficial, quick glimpses they like best.

CUTLER: Well, in a way. It's different, because American Candidate plays in the real world but doesn't play out in the real world.

VERITAS: Sort of like when you expected people in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Charlottesville to vote for candidates based on whirlwind stops in which, as one viewer put it, "first impressions [were] the only impressions" for those few people lucky enough to actually hear about the show's stops. And for those not so lucky, you expected them to vote based on even less.

CUTLER: It's not about a real political campaign.

VERITAS: But isn't it a little misleading to say things like this show will "emulate an actual campaign," and illustrate "media management," and "coalition building?"

During the actual campaigning phase you've forced your cast into a media blackout, tried to stop people like George Loper of Charlottesville from taking pictures of the cast, and had the cast delete campaign blogs. Okay, the cast did ignore the failed AmCan Internet website and created their own online sites, but your actions so far indicate YOU are mostly managing the media and their access to it, not them.

And as for coalition building … Would you comment on the rumor that you suddenly changed how the public could "vote" after New Hampshire and Pennsylvania because so many of your handpicked candidates already had "special interest" backing from "coalitions," and statewide call-in voting was getting skewed by these groups voting "party lines" by phone without ever even catching a glimpse of the candidates?

CUTLER: Most of us will never see the candidate that we vote for in person.

VERITAS: But that's not very enlightening RJ. Especially when it seems that, in your efforts to keep the show secret until after you've edited your footage and put your spin on it, you've created a farce of a fictional campaign. Right down to the tidbit in the press release suggesting you'll be recycling your previously eliminated cast as "running mates." I know, you cite Edwards, but at least Kerry had some semblance of a choice. Was the budget really so low?

GREENBLATT: A reasonable amount of money!

There's no artificial twists here! R. J. isn't trying to force situations where something illicit happens!

VERITAS: [gives Rob supremely skeptical look]


CUTLER: We will show how the sausage is made.

VERITAS: What? Where? At a sausage festival in one these "rural communities" you're talking about in the press release?

And by the way, speaking of costs, what happened to the "criss-crossing the country" you guys hyped? Did the bus break down? As far as we can tell, you've stayed strictly in the Eastern time zone and even hit Pennsylvania twice. Gas prices too high?

What's with this new spin? Where places like Charlottesville are suddenly supposed to be a "rural community" that represents a "key constituency." And Allentown is supposed to a be an urban "key constinuency" – one where basically only the press who barely commented on the candidates after the "press conference," saw the candidates actually debate the issues.

What's up with that?

CUTLER: We plan to countervail that in our show.

VERITAS: With what? Creative editing?

CUTLER: I have nothing to say about the process, because it's ongoing.

GREENBLATT: We have to take risks! We have to challenge the audience!

Some offbeat characters might make it into the final 12!

VERITAS: Look Rob, I know you said that last bit in that LA Times article about the California applicants back in May, but come on. Showtime's latest press release says 10. So, do you know something that contradicts that press release?

GREENBLATT: This show, which is designed to find the ideal ‘American candidate’ from out of obscurity, will try to change all that!

VERITAS: Yes, Rob, you've told us that. How about it RJ? Is there another twist? A way you might try to actually redeem some shred of democracy from this current mess?

CUTLER: We started thinking maybe this will contribute to the debate. We wanted to open up the process. We're in the process of making the decision.

VERITAS: Well, to use a comment you made to Hagan, that's leaving a lot of "distance between the word and its meaning." I hope you'll understand if I say I'm not foolishly naïve, but I will allow you a little bit of hope.

I tell you what, I'll let you escape this interview if you'll just answer one more question.

I've noticed that the Showtime tagline "The revolution will be televised" has gone missing from the American Candidate website. And in this latest press release, Showtime has suddenly stopped touting American Candidate as some kind of "groundbreaking," "revolutionary" form of democracy.

Why do you think that is?

CUTLER: As David Mamet says, always tell the truth, it's the easiest thing to remember. Eventually, these kinds of disconnections between image and truth have a way of catching up to you.

VERITAS: On that, we can agree.

Rob, any last words?

GREENBLATT: A lot of decisions are made well in advance. Most of what you're seeing in this year, with the exception of 'Huff,' and a couple of things that may come our way down the pike, I have had very little to do with.

VERITAS: Okaaay.

Thanks for the time and your words RJ.

It may not seem like it at times, but I really do hope you can make some changes and redeem the AmCan mess. It would do folks good, and make for some good Reality TV.