Thomas Sutcliffe: A political soap opera with a twist in the tale

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The Independent Online

I found myself looking up the odds for Barack Obama last week, shortly after the announcement that he formed an exploratory committee for a Presidential run. This was not because I am a betting man but because I am a sucker for a good story - and Obama's is as good as any of the official current candidates.

Indeed, I rather wish I had been a betting man, since Obama's odds last week were 20/1 on one well-established online site and had dropped to 11/2 by yesterday, despite Hillary Clinton's confirmation over the weekend that she would also be seeking the Democratic nomination. There must presumably be a way to lever a profit out of such a market movement - and the profit is surely still there, given the excitable media response to the prospects of a contest between a well-established political figure and a charismatic newcomer. What you would be betting on is the power of narrative in political life.

Even the most judicious student of form wouldn't be able to distinguish between Obama and Clinton on the basis of their brief video statements to the American people - both of them models of electoral unctuousness. "We have to change our politics and come together as concerned Americans," said Obama, before continuing to add that despite the magnitude of the problems faced by America he had "great faith and hope in the future because I believe in you".

Mrs Clinton meanwhile had also identified an important resource out there beyond the camera lens: "I'm not just starting a campaign though, I'm beginning a conversation with you...Because we all need to be part of the discussion if we're going to be part of the solution." Had the candidates swapped speeches it would have made no difference at all - and the similarity of the way they delivered that inviting pronoun was positively uncanny.

The election campaign will be a very long one - costly in cash and energy. But what Obama and Clinton have to sustain them that their Democratic rivals lack is plotline and backstory. Obama's is that of underdog triumph - a potent audience pleaser that the wife of The Comeback Kid should have a wary respect for. Clinton's storyboard is a little more complicated - though the notion of a gender experiment in capacity for high office must be in there somewhere.

In both cases the stories will have unexpected twists and predictable sub-plots. Can Barack Obama charm black America as successfully as he has charmed white America? Will Hillary fans outweigh Hillary haters (voter indifference is not going to be her problem)? But the advantage to them of sheer narrative interest can't be underestimated - even among the most sophisticated portion of the electorate. Nearly 9 million people didn't watch Big Brother last Friday because they wanted to be properly informed about an issue of widespread public concern. They watched because they wanted to know how the story was going to turn out - and to play a part in writing it.

And in that respect both Obama and Clinton have an asset that will be worth millions of dollars in campaign funding. Whatever other promises they make to the electorate either one of them can guarantee to deliver at least one thing if elected - a genuinely noteworthy ending to the two-year soap opera of a presidential campaign. Electors know with certainty that they can have the country's first black president or its first female president. And even I would put money on the appeal of that kind of plot twist.

A fading star and an excited nation

Looking for Indian response to Jadegate I'm intrigued to find a report on the ExpressIndia website, which puts Big Brother's claim that Shilpa is a huge Bollywood star into perspective. "Shilpa has not really had a hit since Dhadkan, which was almost seven years ago. However, since the unexpected outrage in the UK since the Big Brother episode, her graph has suddenly shot up". Good to know Celebrity Big Brother's commitment to the tepid career has not been breached - and instructive to find Indian gossip columnists are just as excited about Shah Rukh Khan, the new host of Kaun Banega Crorepati (their equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) and the cutting of a daring kissing scene from Dhoom 2. Sometimes it helps to climb outside the teacup.

* It was intriguing to see that "fewer repeats" had been one of the arguments advanced for an increase in the licence fee - a venerable BBC mission statement but one that surely doesn't stand up in the new media economy. DVD sales and television on demand have demonstrated conclusively that viewers have absolutely no problems with repeats - or even repeats of repeats of repeats - provided that the quality is high. Indeed they will pay good money for them. On air, even antique comedies - such as Steptoe and Son - can give first-run programming a drubbing in the ratings. In a world moving away from the single-use and the throwaway there's no reason why long term life shouldn't be an ambition for broadcasters too. The BBC needs the money to produce more repeats - and less disposable schedule-fodder that we don't even want to watch once.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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