Out of the West: Candidates rush for free publicity on the airwaves

Click to follow
CLEVELAND, OHIO - For those of us who like our early morning viewing to be undemanding, the breakfast hour between 7.30am and 8am last Wednesday was torture.

George Bush was chatting away on ABC, Bill Clinton was preaching change on NBC, and Ross Perot was trying to pretend to CBS that he had not made up his mind about re-entering the presidential race. Like it or loathe it, however, that unprecedented daily treble of the airwaves just about sums up Campaign 1992.

For it we have Mr Perot to blame. When the votes are counted in four weeks' time, he will not be the winner: but he will go down as the man who changed the rules of presidential elections, probably for ever.

From 20 February, when Mr Perot first confided he might run to CNN's Larry King, this has been the year of the talk show. This week the manic Mr King has completed his own treble, as Mr Bush and then the Clinton-Gore tandem were feature attractions on successive nights. And the formula seems to work - for politicians and public alike.

True, the presence of such luminaries has scant impact on the ratings. But when the historians get to work on what is indeed a weird election year, they may conclude the turning point for Mr Clinton was not the dazzlingly choreographed Democratic convention, nor even Mr Perot's first, inglorious exit from proceedings. Rather, they may argue, it was a month earlier when he played the saxophone on the hip late-night show of the black comedian Arsenio Hall. Nothing did more for 'Slick Willie' than the sight of him in Ray Charles' dark glasses, just taking it away: suddenly a robo-candidate had become a human being.

The message was not lost upon Mr Bush. An epochal date in the annals of Breakfast Television was 1 July. There, live from the Rose Garden on the CBS This Morning show, a US president, for the first time, answered questions from an audience hauled from a queue for the regular White House tour.

Even Mr Bush had to play the game. Six times during his segment he was interrupted by commercial breaks: 'We've only got a few seconds,' the anchor warned to cut short one meandering reply on education. But the President did not object. The lese majeste, most emphatically, was worth it.

For one thing, such appearances are free. Mr Perot is reputedly paying up to dollars 500,000 (pounds 294,000) apiece for 30-minute slots on ABC and CBS in the next few days: get on a talk show and you can get double the time without shelling out a cent. Better still, you get to choose the journalists in charge, a convenience sadly not available at a normal press conference.

Of course, the message is not laser-targeted as are paid advertising spots. But the effectiveness of the latter must be dubious - not least because the ads are now news in themselves, with the factual accuracy of each put ruthlessly under the microscope by newspapers and television.

Indeed, talk shows have been about the only place to get a good look at the candidates. This year, as never before, they are keeping a safe distance from the retinues of reporters who follow them on the campaign trail: a question to Mr Bush on Iran-Contra or to Mr Clinton on his draft record shouted from 30 yards' range, drawing no response, hardly makes compelling headlines or gripping television.

And thus far the networks have kept their promise to run fewer empty soundbites and inane photo-ops. Television believes it was suckered into fatuity in 1988: it is determined it will not be so again.

Most important, though, the public seems to appreciate the new shape of televised politics. True, blood is rarely spilt in the kindly setting of a talk show, where awkward follow-up questions are abhorred, and the host often sounds an accomplice of his guest.

But if 'real issues' are what elections are supposed to be about, they are far more likely to be raised by an out-of-work software programmer who finds Messrs Bush, Clinton or Perot on the other end of the studio phone than by a professional journalist insider, on the scent of a new scandal. And if red meat has been on the short side, three presidential debates between 11 and 19 October should take care of that.

One question however remains: where have all the 'angry voters' gone? Remember June, when the country sounded ready to put the main party candidates in front of a firing squad, and send an eccentric Texan to the White House? Now, if you believe the findings of a Gallup survey, two-thirds of voters feel 'issues I really care about' are being dealt with; and half of them say the campaign makes them feel 'proud to be an American'.

And thus, inevitably, three more straight days of Mr Bush on Good Morning America this week and the prospect of more shared breakfasts with Messrs Clinton and Perot. But I must grin and bear it. After all, in 27 days' time, it will be over - until the next election cycle starts.