- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

As she inspected the stage where she would later address the Democratic National Convention, a look of recognition flickered across Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s face when she peered out to see who had asked how she was.

“Good! Glad to see you,” she called out to Kevin Frazier of “Entertainment Tonight.”

She always enjoys seeing him, Mrs. Clinton said. It was such a pay-dirt moment that the syndicated newsmagazine used it at the top of its show last week - not once but twice. When you cover celebrities, there’s nothing better than letting viewers know that a celebrity recognizes you.

So, who are bigger celebrities this year than the people seeking the presidency?

The turf for magazine shows such as “ET,” “Access Hollywood” and “The Insider,” usually more interested in Angelina Jolie or Lindsay Lohan, has expanded from red carpets to campaign rallies. The new interest is evident in all the convention coverage.

Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama was a key moment in turning the attention of these shows to politics, says Bill Carroll, an expert in the syndication market for Katz Television. “Wherever the celebrities are, that’s where the celebrity magazines are going to be,” he says.

Richard Dreyfuss, Ben Affleck, Sarah Silverman and Anne Hathaway were among those interviewed at the convention last week. Yet the shows weren’t simply star-struck. When nearly 40 million people watch Mr. Obama’s acceptance speech, it’s more than a celebrity issue.

“You have to tap into the water-cooler stories that the people are talking about,” says Charles Lachman, executive producer of “Inside Edition.” “If you don’t, you won’t have much relevance for your viewers.”

The Obama campaign feels as if it’s reliving the glamour of the Kennedy years, says Rob Silverstein, executive producer of “Access Hollywood.”

“That’s an attraction for us,” he says.

The programs are one more stop on a long media road for presidential contenders, who are expected to show they have a sense of humor on “The Tonight Show” or “The Daily Show.”

The syndicated news magazines reach 4 million to 5 million people each day, offering generally painless puffery - although there are pitfalls. Mr. Obama said he regretted it soon after allowing his children to sit in on an “Access Hollywood” interview.

With the more serious campaign issues addressed on network newscasts that usually run in the same evening hours, the newsmagazines must look for something different.

Hence a voiceover like this for Maria Menounos’ report on “Access Hollywood” last week: “Is there an Obama celebrity backlash? We investigate.”

One “Inside Edition” story last week had Les Trent standing in a backstage elevator to report on how Mrs. Clinton had been “trapped” there. Actually, it couldn’t move for a moment because it was overloaded and some passengers had to get out.

The newsmagazine convention reports included a vertigo-inducing travelogue that shifted from the silly to the serious to the barely consequential in a matter of seconds. A celebrity would [Note] sted will; same change made throughout this section give a sound bite, a designer would comment on Mrs. Clinton’s fashion choices, Jimmy Carter would talk about convention memories and there would be tape of some of the speakers’ big applause lines.

Michelle Obama would walk by, barely breaking stride, say into a microphone that Mrs. Clinton “did an outstanding job today,” and it would be touted as an interview.

Three newsmagazines showed pictures of Mrs. Clinton’s aides holding up different-colored outfits on the convention stage before deciding which one would look better with the bright blue backdrop.

The less celebrity-driven “Inside Edition” looked back on the car accident that killed vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s wife and daughter in 1972, noting that Mr. Biden has speculated publicly that the driver of the truck that hit his family could have been drinking although there has been no evidence of that.

The newsmagazines are essentially interested in letting people learn a little of a potential president’s personality, Mr. Lachman says.

“Access Hollywood” took advantage of being a corporate partner with NBC, using Tom Brokaw last week to give his opinion on the value of celebrity endorsements. The show also interviewed Luke Russert, son of the late Tim Russert, who is working for NBC News at the convention. Mr. Silverstein says he tried to hire Mr. Russert before he went to NBC.

From a campaign’s perspective, the shows offer great attention, says Howard Wolfson, who was communications director of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

“Hillary was on these shows as# much as we could get her on them,” he says. “They have a large audience, and at least for some of the folks watching it, it’s a main source of news and information.”

Mr. Obama hasn’t dealt with “Access Hollywood” since drawing some criticism for allowing his children to be interviewed on the show, Mr. Silverstein says. He suspects that the campaign will be back if Mr. Obama needs to face some specific audience.

“You want to work with them in a way that’s appropriate,” Mr. Wolfson says. “You don’t want to do interviews that are goofy or diminishing. But they have a great audience. And they probably aren’t interested in talking to John McCain that much.”

Not so, the producers say.

Now they are in St. Paul, Minn., for the Republican National Convention.



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