In The Red Corner, In The Blue Corner

Full disclosure: As this column relates to things political, let me state my position.  As a Green Card-carrying Brit, I live and work in the U.S., pay taxes but don't get to vote (21st Century taxation without representation, but hey --  I guess it's payback).  If I could vote, I'd be one of those swing voters we hear so much about.  Right now I'd be voting Republican on a state level and for Obama on a national level.

Tomorrow night promises to provide some great one-off TV in the shape of a vice-presidential debate that is likely to draw higher ratings than usual and that might actually matter in political terms (certainly more so than is normally the case).

So much of what will make this debate different is the casting.  Naturally, most of the sizzle here is produced by the self-proclaimed lipstick-wearing Pit Bull Hockey Mom that is Sarah "Barracuda" Palin.  Her novelty on the screen, the scarcity of direct interplay with the media, and the noise that has been created by the few interviews she actually has done have created such buzz, that many will tune in just to get a look at The Real Thing.



To date, even the interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric -- although somewhat revealing -- have hardly been penetrating. Couric, in particular, wore an expression that oozed disdain for her subject and resentment at not being able to get off the leash and pose much tougher follow-up questions to what Palin offered up as answers.

(If you want to see what politicians go through elsewhere, look at how the BBC's now-legendary Jeremy Paxman treats his subjects when they fail to deliver -- great example of how to deal with fudged answers.)

What has happened, of course, is that Palin's interviews have multiplied their reach as they've been distributed across the Web via YouTube, Facebook and endless blogs and news sites.  They've received massive coverage (principally of the type that the McCain campaign won't have wished for), and transcripts have become a regular feature of many articles.

Add to this the portrayal of Palin by Tina Fey on "Saturday Night Live," and you can't really ask for more if you are seeking to build an audience. How many broadcasters wouldn't give their eye teeth for such hype leading up to a season premiere?  All the chatter created by the viral distribution of so much content has created a context of anticipation probably never equaled by any vice-presidential debate before.

In the blue corner, of course, we have Ordinary Joe "the Commuter" Biden.  Although vastly more experienced in national and international affairs than Palin (for which read old white guy embedded in D.C. much like McCain) there is still the element of risk in the minds of many Dems.  If he goes over the top and indulges his tendency to ramble and be trapped by his own mouth, he could end up coming off as a patronizing bully -- something the Republicans will be only too willing to jump on in post-debate analysis as evidence of a sexist attitude in the Obama campaign (a Republican theme you can probably expect to see anyway).  Add to this the lingering fear in the minds of many Democrats that Palin may just surprise everyone and pull something out of the hat.  Once again, the plot looks to be that much more irresistible for the viewer.  Maybe things won't be the slam-dunk that many have predicted.  An element of doubt or a surprise ending always adds to the drama of the narrative.

Of course, there are also those who will tune in anticipating more of the kind of thing that has provided such a rich vein of material for Tina Fey.  Indeed, some might think that the Republicans would be better off fielding Fey for the debate, especially since the bailout proposal was voted down on Monday, after Palin's less than comprehensively expressed words on the matter actually found their way into the subsequent "SNL" skit.

All in all, this election is taking on the characteristics of a reality show runaway success, with a fantastic cast of characters and issues of real consequence (wars, economic meltdown etc.) that all lead to a real polarity of viewer / voter loyalty.

Unlike most reality shows, however, this one could probably never be sold to a network, since much of it is too unlikely for words.  But as the primaries weren't decided by the networks, they can now sit back and reap the rewards of what will probably be the highest-rated series of election debates and related programming in years.

Whether or not McCain wins -- and regardless of the politics involved -- the broadcast world should probably be thanking John McCain for his maverick choice of running mate.




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