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As campaign managers for Sarah Palin plot last-minute tactics to get her and John McCain elected, Hollywood bigwigs are convening strategy sessions of their own. Their goal: finding the ideal on-air vehicle for the vice presidential candidate if and when she exits politics.
Love her or hate her — there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground with Palin — the 44-year-old hockey mom has captured the public imagination in a way no politician has since, well, Barack Obama.
But as more and more polls cast doubt on the McCain-Palin ticket, producers and agents across the entertainment world are discussing possibilities for capitalizing on her fame, ranging from an Oprah-style syndicated talk show to a Sean Hannity-like perch in cable news or on radio.
“Any television person who sees the numbers when she appears on anything would say Sarah Palin would be great,” said veteran morning-show producer Steve Friedman, citing the double-digit ratings gains her appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and “CBS Evening News” generated. “The passion she has on each side, love and hate, makes television people say, ‘Wow, imagine the viewership.’ “
Although none of the execs has — at least as far as anyone is admitting — made direct overtures to the Alaska governor, they are readying their battle plans if she decides to give up her day job.
Of course, even if the McCain-Palin ticket loses, the Tina Fey look-alike still has a job in politics for at least another two years as governor of Alaska. A spokesman for Palin did not return calls for comment.
But the candidate has undeniable onscreen charisma as her “SNL” performance proved last weekend. And though the Palin Express sometimes veers off the tracks — as it did in her interview with Katie Couric — Americans enjoy celebrities as much for their contretemps as their talent.
Most industry insiders believe a talk show is the probable route for Palin. Although daytime syndication can be tough sledding, it would take a personality of her stature to break through the clutter, and her folksy red-state persona could be just the thing to connect with a female-skewing audience.
One producer/packager said he’s had staff meetings about how to best parlay Palin’s appeal, with a daytime talk show the likely vehicle. “I see her less as a variety-show host like Ellen (DeGeneres) and more of a single-topic host like Tyra (Banks), or maybe what Jenny Jones used to be,” said Chris Coelen, CEO of RDF USA.
However, one syndie veteran who wished to remain anonymous believes Palin would not make an ideal candidate for talk show host or even court show judge.
“I would not put her on the air,” the exec said. “I find her a little stiff, and her ability to read the room is not quite fully developed.”
Cable news is another possibility, particularly Fox News Channel, if Palin wants to keep her conservative bona fides intact. There’s a well-worn path between the Beltway and TV, from Pat Buchanan to as recent an example as former presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, who just began his own weekly series on Fox News.
A weekly cable news berth also could be a less demanding side gig to occupy while still in office in Alaska, though losing the election could dent her credibility among conservatives.
Eric Wattenberg, an agent at N.S. Bienstock, a New York-based agency that counts many news anchors among its clientele, believes syndication is a safer bet. “I could see her getting more traction as an Oprah than as an Anderson Cooper,” he said.
Some combination of talk and news could even be in the cards: One agent recommended News Corp. let her hone her chops on Fox News in anticipation of rolling out a broader-appealing talker over Fox’s O&O stations after 2010.
And then there are those who are thinking outside the box, as in reality television.
One producer floated the idea — only half-joking — of taking advantage of the curiosity surrounding the Palin clan and their Alaska setting and packaging “The Palins”: Think “The Osbournes” meets “Northern Exposure.”
Some skeptics point out that Palin will run into a major obstacle in trying to win over the kind of widespread support one needs to become a national television figure. She is, after all, a polarizing personality. But as with such media darlings as Howard Stern or Star Jones, polarization has its advantages. “She could have a Kathie Lee Gifford kind of thing,” Wattenberg said. “You’re either addicted to her because you love her or you just want to tune in to see if she’ll do something stupid.”
Another potential obstacle to Palin is that there will be execs in liberal-leaning Hollywood who might shut the door to her solely out of political distaste. “People pretend they don’t feel that way, but they do,” one agent said.
The question mark amid all this speculation is whether Palin has any interest in an entertainment career. There’s little indication of that, unless you count the vp candidate sending a tape of herself to late-night host Craig Ferguson last year before anyone in the lower 48 had ever heard of Wasilla. For a segment on his “Late Late Show,” Ferguson had been soliciting invitations from politicians to help him become a citizen. The host was impressed enough with the unknown Palin’s screen presence that he put the video on the air, even commenting, “Is it just me, or do I get a naughty librarian vibe from her?”
Even if Palin opts to remain in politics, Hollywood likely will find some way to sink its claws into her.
Although Matt Damon’s comparison of Palin’s rise to “a really bad Disney movie” was meant as a dig, the point wasn’t lost on a lot of execs: The narrative of Palin’s life is highly conducive to a biopic — one likely already in development; whether it’s a big-screen “W.”-style treatment or a smaller-scale approach for Lifetime remains to be seen.
Palin herself might not be able to wait until the end of her term to act on any showbiz ambitions.
IMG Worldwide agent Babette Perry noted what could be called the Sanjaya effect: Celebrities (like the “American Idol” also-ran) can go from household name to obscurity with the push of a remote. “You’ve got to strike while the iron is hot,” Perry said. “People forget that today’s story is tomorrow’s afterthought.”
Kimberly Nordyke and Paul J. Gough in New York contributed to this report.
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