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Reality TV Gets Political Spin In 'Red/Blue' Series Proposal

By John Maynard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005

Reality television has generated American idols, top models and business apprentices. Now, some political types are hoping that a D.C.-based reality show can deliver the next great political consultant.

A proposed eight-part series titled "Red/Blue," which its creators aim to get on the air next summer, places 12 or 14 aspiring political consultants -- divided into two teams of liberals and conservatives -- inside a Georgetown townhouse that's wired with cameras and microphones a la "Real World" and "Big Brother." The participants engage in a series of challenges, both in and out of Washington, that test their political skills. Two hopefuls, one of each political stripe, will be eliminated each week. The last man or woman standing wins $1 million to spend on a cause or candidate in the 2006 election.

"We're trying to find Karl Rove, without all the baggage," said series co-creator Ken Smukler, a former Democratic strategist who now runs a Philadelphia-based political communications firm. He developed the show with his assistant, Harry Cook.

True Entertainment, a reality TV production company whose credits include A&E's "Gastineau Girls" and TLC's "A Baby Story" and "Town Haul," has signed on with the project. True Entertainment is a subsidiary of the British company Endemol, a giant in the reality TV business that's responsible for CBS's "Big Brother" franchise and NBC's gross-out series, "Fear Factor."

But don't expect participants to lie in a coffin filled with rats or jump out of a speeding car into a ring of fire.

Rather, "Red/Blue" contestant challenges will have a distinct Washington feel. "There will be an opposition research aspect" where teams gather intelligence and produce negative campaign spots attacking each another, Smukler said. They may also get involved in a local school board race to "see how they perform in a campaign management role."

"We try and identify skill sets that someone . . . should have in order to be effective and really be a player in the political landscape of '06," Smukler said.

Staffers at the political tip sheet the Hotline, a daily read for political junkies in town, will serve as "technical consultants" to the show, according to editor in chief Chuck Todd. "We're going to make sure it's grounded in political reality and that it doesn't make a fool of itself in the political community and Washington," Todd said.

True Entertainment is looking for a network to telecast "Red/Blue."

"Look, do I think it's more likely to show up on FX than it is on NBC? Yes," Todd said. "I'm a realist. I expect it to do better than C-SPAN6 . . . but this has the feel, as you see more and more of these cable networks wanting to brand their own shows, that this is where there may be some appetite."

Among viewers, there was no appetite for one recent politically based reality show. Last summer's "American Candidate," in which 10 contestants took part in a virtual presidential campaign, was a ratings disaster for Showtime. After the first episode last August, the show never averaged more than 80,000 viewers nationwide.

And in the fall of 2003, there was HBO's "K Street," the George Clooney-Steven Soderbergh faux reality show in which actors portraying lobbyists mingled with Washington's power elite in an ad-libbed, D.C.-based show. Although the program generated a significant amount of buzz in Washington and started off with moderate ratings, interest quickly waned, resulting in no second season.

Smukler is not ruling out the possibility of some "Real World"-like romantic shenanigans on the set of "Red/Blue." "I would be surprised if it didn't happen," he said. "I come from a campaign world. Whenever I was managing a campaign and there was a bunch of 20- and 30-year-olds, something seemed to happen."

Smukler said "Red/Blue" has the potential to create the same kind of "intensity" as the most high-profile political campaigns. "Does that energy breed relationships? Yes, it does, in my experience."

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