Party animals

An Obama win will have very different repercussions for Hollywood than a McCain victory

Jay Leno and David Letterman are rooting for the Republicans.

That's not a comment on their political beliefs, which late-night hosts play close to their vests. But if comic fodder is any factor, after-hours hosts will benefit from a John McCain administration: During a survey in September, the Center for Media and Public Affairs counted seven times as many jokes about the Republican ticket than the Democratic one.

The outcome of the battle for the White House will have consequences far beyond entertainment. But next week's election will also impact Hollywood, influencing culture and policy in crucial ways.

In redefining the pop cultural zeitgeist, it could indirectly affect which movies are made and how much media regulation conglomerates face as well as have an impact on digital development and cable-news ratings.

And it will vault some personalities to popularity and doom others to obscurity.

The principle: What's good for one category of entertainers under one administration is bad for another.

"If McCain wins, late-night hosts would have a field day," CNN pundit and Hunter College professor Karen Hunter said.

And if Barack Obama wins?

"Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity would have a field day," she said.

There are many variables in the relationship between the White House and Hollywood. But the governing principle, according to several industry vets and experts, is that opposition rules — that is, the entertainment world will favor those aligned with the opposition.

Bill O'Reilly, Matt Drudge, Limbaugh and other conservative stars rose to power during the eight years of the Clinton administration. Over the past eight years of Republican rule, such entertainers as Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Al Franken were able to make the jump to the big time on the backs of White House blunders.

That means if Obama converts his lead in the polls to a victory, the next four years could bring these stars back to earth and vault others into the stratosphere.

"The people who have the most trouble will be people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert," one network late-night producer said. "It's very hard to rail against the machine when you helped support the machine. They're going to have to find a different dynamic."

It's not just traditional television comedy either.

Hybrid personality Michael Moore enjoyed under Bush his two biggest boxoffice successes in "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Sicko," feeding off resentment for Bush's foreign policy and health-care plan. Moore is prepping a sequel to "Fahrenheit" that Paramount Vantage and Overture are co-producing. But rival studio execs are questioning the movie's commercial prospects if Obama wins the White House and the country puts the Bush years behind it.

Cable news, meanwhile, is increasingly polarized, and the election will only widen the gulf. Fox News' most successful shows — led by O'Reilly's "The O'Reilly Factor" and Hannity's "Hannity & Colmes" — are also two of its more conservative shows (though Colmes provides a counterbalance), while MSNBC has taken a sharp turn to the left with Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and, to a lesser extent, Chris Matthews.

An election that lifts either the left or right to power will provide a boost to the network imbued with the ideology of the other side. Given Obama's lead at the polls, an MSNBC comeback — Olbermann's ratings continue to be strong and Maddow's upstart show is an unlikely second-place challenger to CNN's Larry King — could stall if the Illinois senator ascends to the Oval Office.

And such effects wouldn't be limited to MSNBC: Cable ratings in general could sag.

"A lot of people are going to suffer from withdrawal after the election," said Hunter, only half-joking. "What are people going to talk about after there's no more campaigning?"

On the feature film side, expect consequences in the medium term, particularly when it comes to subject matter.

"It may take a few years, but I think the scripts we'll start to see will be impacted by who's in the Oval Office," one studio development exec said. "We're going to see a glut of projects about whatever the administration's weak spot is. Just look at the last two terms, when studios started developing all these scripts about the failures of U.S. intelligence."

That doesn't necessarily mean a McCain presidency would lead to a glut of economic-policy scripts, but money-centered tales both personal and political could come into vogue.

One of the side-effects of having a new president in the West Wing will be a change in the relationship between Tinseltown and D.C.

After eight years of chilliness between entertainers and the Bush White House, there may well be a return to the warm feelings of the 1990s, when the Clintons hosted or were frequent guests of Hollywood luminaries.

If Obama were to win, it's likely that that love affair will be rekindled. He already has won the endorsements of many in Hollywood — not only from Tom Hanks and George Clooney but from CEOs like Barry Diller.

Even a McCain victory, though, would likely mean a thawing of relations or at least an attempt to engage afresh with a different Republican playbook.

In any case, no matter who they fraternize with along Wilshire Boulevard, candidates in trying times tend to focus on what they consider weightier matters than Hollywood — particularly once a campaign is over and fundraising is not an immediate priority.

"While I think that there's a lot of fondness by a lot of people in Hollywood toward Obama, I think the problems we're facing right now probably mean that his focus is not going to be on Hollywood," MPAA chief Dan Glickman said.

The most immediate impact of a new president will likely center on the FCC. Current FCC chairman Kevin Martin set out an agenda that promised stricter controls on broadcast television content. If Obama is elected, his choice for the post (rumors have mentioned Karen Kornbluh and Julius Genachowski) likely will return the commission to tighter rules on media ownership and fewer Martin-esque passion projects like a la carte pricing.

A McCain appointee as chairman would push on several Martin initiatives and in general emphasize less regulation.

"McCain clearly believes in a smaller government, a more nimble FCC," said Andrew Lippman at Washington-based Bingham McCutchen law firm.

But Glickman said that the lines won't break down clearly.

"A lot of folks sometimes think that (when) you get more Democrats in office, that means more protection for the products that television and movies and the content industries put out. The truth is that Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who is likely to be the new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is very engaged in these issues and has strong views on these issues."

It's likely that no matter who is in the White House, a censorship battle will be in large part an effort on the part of the new FCC chair. Whether indecency or anti-TV violence efforts are part of that will be determined by the new chairman's priorities, much as the recent efforts have come from Martin.

"I don't think they're going to spend two minutes prosecuting people for letting Bono say a word of common expletive because he got excited," said Jonathan Taplin, a USC communications professor said of the Obama administration. "It doesn't pass the who-cares test."

No matter who wins, the election will of course make history, putting either a woman or a black man in the White House. But one wag said that if Obama wins and an entertainment culture of opposition develops, we could make history in another way: This country could see its first hard-core Republican comedian. (partialdiff)
comments powered by Disqus