Friday, October 31, 2008

Obama uses his TV time well

By Robert Bianco

It pays to buy airtime only if you know what to do with it — and Barack Obama clearly does.

Voters will make the final judgment on the content and effectiveness of last night's cross-network infomercial, a half-hour block purchased by the Obama campaign from CBS, NBC, Fox, MSNBC, Univision, BET and TV One. But as a piece of political theater, the program was a low-key triumph, a message perfectly attuned to the cool side of the medium.

Unusual but not unique, Obama's 30-minute ad was the first such presidential campaign pitch since Ross Perot's series of extended TV talks in 1992. But where Perot's were notoriously (at times humorously) low-tech — just Perot and some pie charts — Obama's was a more elaborate mix of live TV and tape that came across as well-produced without seeming slick and overproduced.

The show presented Obama as both candidate and host, making his points by introducing representative Americans and their stories. Each segment was bracketed by Obama speaking in a wood-paneled office, a flag prominent in the background, as he calmly laid out his plans.

In part, the show was designed to prove Obama understands us, that he can connect with the problems of workers and retirees. But it was also designed to help us understand him, to become comfortable with the idea of him as president. Reassurance was not just the point of the biographical tidbits and the recorded testimonials; it was the point of the entire broadcast.

There was talk about tough issues but no harsh attacks on the other side and no flashes of anger. It was if the campaign had adopted a new political mantra: Speak softly and carry a big ad.

The only break in tone came at the end, as the ad cut to Obama's live speech in Florida, and the candidate was forced to raise his voice above the recorded whisper. But even that shift was caused more by the venue than by any change in message.

Some parts, perhaps, were hokey: the soft piano music, the rapt faces of the adoring crowd. But if these are political film clichés, they're clichés because they work. They were well-used here to convey the ad's underlying message: "I am one of you."

Did it amount to Obama Overload? In the old three-network universe, it might have. But we live in a multimedia world where anyone who lost interest had hundreds of other available choices. At any rate, Obama's team chose his time slot well: Only someone who's ready to be offended could be sorely chafed at being denied Knight Rider, Gary Unmarried and a baseball pregame show.

You can, of course, complain about the money spent. But it's hard not to think it was well-spent.

And if the format catches on, doesn't it at least stand a chance of being more informative than the 60 30-second spots it replaced?

Original here

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