Up for Debate: nbc news Logo Decorates “The West Wing”

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Up for Debate: NBC News Logo Decorates “The West Wing”

Up for Debate: NBC News Logo Decorates “The West Wing”

REUBEN STERN University of Missouri–Columbia

It’s 8:15 p.m. on a Sunday night. In three days votes will be cast for local initiatives in several states. A channel-surfing TV viewer stumbles on a political debate on one of the three major broadcast networks. The debate is moderated by a prominent national news anchor, and is branded in the lower right corner of the screen with the logo of the network’s news division and the word “Live” above it. Thinking it is some unscheduled special report, the viewer keeps watching. After 10 minutes of trying to catch up, he finally realizes the debate is not real. Instead, the program in question was a live performance of a mostly scripted episode of the NBC political drama “The West Wing.” This lone viewer (real or hypothetical) could hardly have been the only one fooled. According to NBC’s own poll, conducted by professional polling firm Zogby International, 26 percent of responding viewers said the debate “seemed realistic.”

Lasting seven seasons, “The West Wing” was an hour-long weekly show that chronicled the behind-the-scenes activity within a fictional U.S. presidential administration. Although the show was clearly made up, it prided itself on incorporating current events into the story lines and on presenting a believable yet idealized representation of the character and motives driving the people who run the government of the United States, led by the show’s fictional president, Jed Bartlet.

After series creator Aaron Sorkin left the show in 2003, “The West Wing” veered more toward typical formulaic television, and ratings for the show slowly began to slip. In 2005, with many loyal fans having tuned out, the network moved the show from Wednesday to Sunday night, pitting it directly against the wildly popular new program “Desperate Housewives” on ABC. The switch caused ratings for “The West Wing” to drop immediately by about a third, to an average of 8.2 million viewers during the season.

The live debate episode was timed to draw additional viewers during “sweeps” week. The live episode of “The West Wing” fit well with the season’s continuing story line, which involved the race for a new president to replace Bartlet, who was nearing the end of his second term. This larger narrative pitted a Democratic candidate played by Jimmy Smits against a Republican candidate played by Alan Alda, both highly recognizable television series veterans.

NBC had heavily promoted the live “West Wing” episode in advance, with news of the broadcast appearing as early as a month beforehand. The publicity included a conference call with journalists the week before the show aired that involved both Smits and Alda, along with executive producer John Wells. Newspapers across the country carried advance stories previewing the debate program a day or two before the show, and the Associated Press also moved several stories over its news wire service.

The debate episode was performed live two times that night to accommodate different time zones. After a brief introduction by comedian Ellen Degeneres, the show began with the usual “West Wing” opening credits, after which it cut to moderator Forrest Sawyer and the debate format. In both showings, an NBC News “bug” remained on the screen for the duration of the show. The insignia that appeared on-screen featured the network’s signature rainbow peacock tail and the words “NBC News” and “LIVE.” Although it looked almost identical to the real thing, an online message-board posting from one viewer asserted the logo was slightly different from the actual news logo the network uses.

The program was moderated by Forrest Sawyer, a prominent former news anchor who has worked as a journalist in the news divisions of all three major networks, including NBC. Articles in at least three major newspapers about the actual “West Wing” episode incorrectly identified Sawyer as still working at NBC News. Because anchoring at NBC and its sister cable channel MSNBC was Sawyer’s most recent network news position (Sawyer had filled in as anchor of the “Nightly News” for a week in August 2005, a little more than two months before the “West Wing” debate), many viewers may have reasonably believed Sawyer was representing the network’s news division during the show. A Lexis-Nexis search of the five years before the “debate” failed to turn up a single news article reporting that Sawyer had departed NBC or MSNBC.

According to an AP report, the use of the NBC News logo was requested by the episode’s producer and writer, Lawrence O’Donnell, and approved by NBC Universal Television Group president Jeff Zucker. O’Donnell, who at one time worked for the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, also serves as a senior political analyst on MSNBC. His responsibilities included both onscreen appearances in MSNBC’s political coverage and the behind-the-scenes work on “The West Wing.”

Did the live episode staging accomplish its goals? In terms of attracting additional viewers, the answer is clearly yes. The live episode drew an estimated 9.6 million viewers, a 17 percent increase from the 8.2 million the show had been averaging. However, “The West Wing” still lagged behind other programs that night. First-place network ABC drew more than twice as many viewers (18.4 million) with “Home Edition.” CBS’ “Cold Case” program drew 16.2 million viewers, and Fox’s “The Simpsons” drew 11.6 million viewers.

The reviews were mixed with critics largely unimpressed. A New York Times reviewer called the debate “the quintessence of wishful writing,” while a Hartford Courant writer called the program “every bit as boring” as a real presidential debate. Tom Shales of the Washington Post declared the show “a failure, yet not a complete waste of time.”

But even critics who panned the show overall noted how well the debate simulated the real thing. As the Hartford Courant’s reviewer pointed out: “It sure looked real, with flat video stock, plain two-shots of a conventional TV debate, and a fake NBC News logo subbing for the luxurious film gloss, glamorous lighting and arty angles of the weekly series.” As noted in the Los Angeles Daily News, “the trappings of the debate sure looked real enough: In their dark business suits, both candidates were stationed at lecterns in front of the customary blue

background.” The reviewer for the Tampa Tribune was equally convinced: “NBC’s live ‘West Wing’ debate Sunday was so realistic that five minutes into it I was ready to switch channels.”

The larger intent of the show—indeed the entire series—was to give the American public an idealized vision of political behavior, thus enabling voters to more effectively set standards for real politicians while encouraging more widespread participation in the democratic process. Actor Jimmy Smits stated the mission even more directly: “What John (Wells, the executive producer) really wants to do is try to give the audience what a real debate should be. . . . Hopefully, with this, maybe we’ll give a little lesson or two to the way the next one should be—the next real one.”

According to a reviewer at the Hollywood Reporter, the episode “showed what a real debate might be if candidates ever decided to risk being themselves and confronting the issues and each other. Odd as it may seem, it gives viewers a basis for comparing actual presidential debates and what is possible.” Another reviewer completed the thought: “By contrast, too many real politicians seem to have been hollowed out and stuffed with straw polls by party taxidermists, the better to mouth platitudes devoid of meaning or passion.”

While much of the written coverage of the show highlighted differences between fictional and real political exchanges, the majority of newspaper stories at the same time adopted traditional news reporting formats to focus on the question of who “won” the debate. In this way a large portion of the coverage both before and after the show, including stories moved over the wire by the AP, furthered the goals of “West Wing” producers by lending an air of validity to the evening’s event and the fictional political race overall.

This type of coverage was cleverly stirred up by NBC, which hired an independent polling firm, Zobgy International, to gauge and report viewer response. At least two major West Coast newspapers also ran their own online polls asking readers to vote on which fictional candidate “won” the debate. This not only furthered the illusion of a real contest but also mirrored the typical “horse race” coverage of an election that is widely decried by a number of media scholars.

Although the fictional candidates conspicuously steered clear of a few important topics (most notably abortion), the hour-long program was filled with statistics and references related to real-life policies and issues, including taxation, Medicare, Head Start, oil drilling in Alaska, debt relief for African countries, etc. Perhaps the most extreme example involved one candidate’s assertion that the government-run Medicare insurance program is about six times more efficient than private health insurance companies.

Micro Issues

1. Does the use of the NBC News logo “cheapen” the NBC news division and its programs? Did the logo enhance the fictional debate on “The West Wing”? Justify your answer.

2. Does the selection of Forrest Sawyer as the moderator cheapen any future journalistic enterprises he might attempt? Justify your answer.
3. Do you think many viewers were like the man in the opening paragraph of this case who admitted on his blog that he was fooled by the presentation?

Midrange Issues

1. If it is true that the logo was slightly changed from the NBC logo, does that make a difference?

2. Does it make a difference if Forrest Sawyer was currently employed by NBC? Why or why not?
3. In what ways does this episode of “The West Wing” differ from the admittedly fake news programming nightly on Comedy Central?

Macro Issues

1. Is it the role of entertainment media to foster political debate in the United States?

2. Some polls showed that a significant number of Americans would have voted for the fictional Jed Bartlet for president. What does this say about the power of the media? What does it say about the U.S. electorate?
3. What do you see as the differences in this program, which is admittedly about fictional characters running for president, and a made-for-television movie about an actual incident like, for instance, the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11? Are the standards different for fiction based on factual events?

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