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TV is Good for Politics

Donald Trump Returns to Host

Like so many viewers, I had to tune in last Saturday to see Donald Trump return as host of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Despite Trump’s limited screen time (just 12-minutes in total, according to published reports) the episode itself seemed like nothing more than a stiff and humorless 90-minute campaign ad for his Republican run for President. But Trump loves the spotlight, and NBC smelled the solid ratings a mile away. Based on the household overnights from Nielsen, it scored a 6.6 rating/16 share, which was the best for “SNL” in almost four years.

I guess you can’t blame a network for trying to maximize its numbers. And a four-year rating high for a show that is in season 41 is certainly unprecedented. But given the “equal time” rule on television, which requires networks to offer the same amount of time to every political candidate, shouldn’t other Presidential wannabes have a shot hosting “SNL”? And doesn’t Hillary Clinton’s recent cameo appearance on the weekend late night staple now seem like she got shortchanged?

Putting that aside, “SNL” is certainly not the only show in the vast world of the small screen to offer an arena for political hopefuls, and benefit from it. While critics are blasting NBC’s decision to give Trump the “SNL” spotlight, even the negative attention is good attention. Aren’t we all talking about “SNL,” after all? While Trump as President seems as likely as Rosie O’Donnell becoming his Secretary of State (yes…he managed to make reference to his arch enemy in his opening monologue), more political candidates than ever before are using TV shows, talkers in particular, as campaigning tools. So much planning, and so much expense, and all it sometimes takes is deadpanning “Sock it to me” to the camera to get elected.

That example, of course, occurred on September 16, 1968 when then Presidential candidate Richard Nixon made his cameo appearance on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and deadpanned the kooky variety hour’s signature “Sock it to me.” “Laugh-In” was the top-rated show in all of primetime (with a 31.8 household rating for that season, according to Nielsen!). And Nixon’s appearance only magnified “Laugh-In” as the “in place” for pop culture (at a time when Lucille Ball was scheming on “Here’s Lucy” and Brian Keith as Uncle Bill was tucking in little Buffy and Jody at bedtime on “Family Affair”). Some, in fact, even blame “Laugh-In” for Nixon even getting elected.

Second to “Laugh-In,” perhaps, in the best appearance by a political candidate on television was on June 3, 1992 when the Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, belted out Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” on the saxophone during late night syndicated talker “The Arsenio Hall Show.”

Campaigning politicians making the media rounds has increased in leaps and bounds over the years. Viewers love Ellen DeGeneres, so Vermont Senator and Republican presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stopping by in October to have a nice chat and showcase his dance stills – or lack of – on Ellen’s daytime talker was a well-calculated move for viewer support. Barack Obama did the same in 2007 right before he was elected President. Then there was Maryland Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley performing Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” on ABC’s “The View.” And, more recently, was Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, another presidential wannabe, eating soul food and discussing “yo mamma” jokes with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show.” That last example is pretty damn cringe-worthy if you ask me.

Recent examples in late night include Jeb Bush on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on CBS; Chris Christie, Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina and the man called Trump on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” on NBC; and Rick Santorum on “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO.

Running for President, of course, is certainly no joke. This person is our Commander in Chief after all! So watching these wannabes make the rounds for a few jokes and some like banter can be excruciating at times. But a successful campaign also showcases the more human side of the candidates. No one wants their leader to be an emotionless robot, after all. And for a show waiting in line to feature these individuals, the hype and the attention in social media – not to mention the typically increased ratings – is an absolute win. It is all about being topical. While the critics may balk – and you just knew Donald Trump would truly suck at hosting “Saturday Night Live” alive – no attention is bad attention.

Given the importance of these jovial appearances, maybe Hillary Clinton should learn how to play an instrument. Look what that did for her husband.