Bush-Kerry contest inspires a new flap at ailing 'West Wing'

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The Independent US

As America's presidential election campaign revs up, the White House administration headed by President Josiah Bartlett is looking for a soaring bounce in the polls. Yes, you have read correctly.

In that shifting world where reality and fiction intermingle, the producers of the award-winning television series The West Wing , are hoping the bitter and unprecedentedly vigorous election campaign between George Bush and John Kerry will boost their now-ailing show.

The series, which stars Martin Sheen as a liberal Democratic president - far more liberal than John Kerry would be - has won four consecutive Emmy Awards and has been nominated for 12 Emmys this year. But all is not well.

Indeed, in the past two series, ratings have fallen almost as sharply as Mr Bush's personal approval figures since he announced the "official" end of the war in Iraq. And just like Mr Bush, The West Wing faces being dropped if the producers and writers cannot do something to reinvigorate the product.

Viewing figures have fallen from 17.1 million in 2001-02 to 11.7 million last year, so writers of the sixth season of the drama say they will be tapping into real events to try to capture more audience. Three of the 22 episodes have been finished and the scripts for a further nine written.

Kevin Reilly, president of NBC entertainment, told The New York Times : "The Bartlett administration is coming to the end of its term and that is going to foster interesting developments. I can't give anything specific but there will be a tumult in the administration this year."

Critics say that in its last season, the series became increasingly less believable. One story-line had the daughter of the President being taken hostage. Others involved terrorism and relations with foreign governments and rogue states.

This shift may have been the result of the departure from the show of its creator, Aaron Sorkin, in May last year amid falling ratings and budget issues. Managers have now arranged the return of Lawrence O'Donnell, a writer from the early days who also left. He said the show would focus on who would succeed President Bartlett after his two terms and the timing of the Bush-Kerry contest was a fortunate coincidence.

"In the evolution of the stories, politics and campaigning was the area least explored," he said. "We're trying to rectify that. We haven't had the political sharks circling the White House. That dynamic will be added."