“For us, this was an under-served audience, and it was time for us to really get in the game,” said Bruce Perlmutter, E!’s senior vice president of news.
Although channels such as MTV have long had programs such as “Rock the Vote” that cater to the late-teens and early-20s crowd, Perlmutter said there’s an appetite for even more political programming, as well as a big opportunity to inform his network’s target audience — which he described as “young, youngish, younger” — about the issues.
After E! executives decided to delve into the political arena, it brought up a question: How would the network balance its signature celebrity stories about Snooki’s baby and Miley’s haircut with McCain family sit-downs and Nancy Pelosi interviews?
The strategy was to approach the new programming through an “E! prism,” said Perlmutter, a former Fox Business Network executive. So when correspondent Ross Mathews, whom the network sent to Tampa and Charlotte to cover the recent conventions, scored a few minutes with Michelle Obama, he talked to her about hot-button issues such as the economy and same-sex marriage but also grilled her at length about her TV habits (she loves HGTV), social media rules for her daughters (texting yes, Facebook no) and which celebrity she would want to introduce her husband’s convention speech (“someone like Oprah”).
Mathews said it took some finesse to bridge the gap between the E! audience and subjects at the convention.
“I didn’t want to talk down to our audience just because they weren’t used to seeing political people on the show,” said Mathews, 33, who was a correspondent for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” before becoming a regular on E!’s red carpet shows. “I wanted to have a real conversation about policy. And the first lady was totally down with that.”
Mathews used this technique as he worked his way through both conventions, keeping the subjects light and injecting plenty of his boisterous personality into rapid-fire discussions. At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, he chatted with Sen. John McCain, who proudly announced that he was a fan of E! “Is he really interested in what the Kardashians are doing?” Mathews later asked Cindy McCain, who assured him that her husband is interested in “everything that’s going on in this country.”
The next week at the Democrats’ convention in Charlotte, Mathews sat down with Pelosi, the House minority leader, to get her thoughts on Clint Eastwood’s infamous “invisible Obama” performance. (“In some ways I felt sad for him, but in other ways I felt sad for the Republicans that they thought that was a good idea,” Pelosi said.) And Mathews got keynote speaker and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to admit that he wasn’t above asking for an autograph from Eva Longoria, a fellow speaker.
Politicos from both sides of the spectrum enjoy interacting with E!, said Perlmutter, pointing out that Michelle Obama accepted only a few interview requests at the convention. “We get into a lot of different aspects where a traditional interview with a traditional journalist might not have gone,” he said. “It’s disarming to them, and they like that.”
And it’s a two-way street for politicians, who may have seen recent polls that indicate young voters’ turnout intentions are way down compared with 2008 — so it never hurts to reach out to a channel specializing in that audience.
“Speaking with E! was an opportunity to reach young voters and folks who might not have been tuning into the network coverage of the Democratic National Convention,” said Jaime Castillo, a spokesman for Castro. Pelosi’s press secretary, Drew Hammill, also weighed in on the E! experience: “It was an entertaining and thoughtful interview, which reached a large audience composed of a key demographic.”
Although the political stories will have more of a presence on E! in the future, dedicated viewers don’t need to worry. The news updates are sandwiched between E!’s bread and butter, such as scandalous Kate Middleton photos and updates on Rob and K-Stew’s relationship. But the network is scheduling more “Pop and Politics” segments to air before the election, and Perlmutter said that he wants to keep them on “E! News” well after the inauguration.
Mathews is also eager to continue, though isn’t sure he can top his experience at the conventions, especially considering how wildly different it was than any other channel’s coverage.
“I mean, I just fist bumped the first lady about gay marriage and invited her to sing at my wedding,” Mathews said. “So, what could be next?”