A Power City, Powerless Before the Redskins
TV Habits Tell a Different Story About Political Washington

By Sudarsan Raghavan and John Maynard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 14, 2006

Washington likes to think of itself as a unique center of cosmopolitan life, a wonky place consumed with doing the world's business, a city where serious and diverse minds from around the globe hammer out matters of great import.

Perhaps Washington should take another look at itself -- if it can tear itself away from the tube.

You, there, in the seat of power, check out this revealing little statistic: The 20 most-watched programs on television in the past four months in the Washington area are about football. Football . Almost all Redskins, of course.

Of all the cable channels and all the networks and all the talk shows and comedies and dramas, Washington is watching the Redskins. Redskins vs. Eagles. Redskins vs. Cowboys. Redskins vs. Buccaneers. Pregame shows, postgame shows. With all the "CSI" spinoffs, you would think the odds would land at least one in the top 20 -- but, no.

It seems Washington, hub of political activism and world diplomacy, is more like Pittsburgh and Philly than it thinks -- their top shows are also football.

But San Francisco and Seattle -- whom the Redskins play in today's playoff game -- might be more like Washington than Washington is. In Seattle, 11 of the top 19 programs were National Football League-related, according to an NFL analysis of Nielsen ratings, and in San Francisco, where the 49ers finished a dreadful 4-12, nine of the top 18 shows were.

Football programming has always done well in this region, but with the Redskins making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, they are dominating television.

"The resurgence of the team, led by head coach Joe Gibbs, has garnered even more attention from these fans, who are tuning in greater numbers each week," said Phil Guarascio, the NFL's lead executive in charge of marketing and sales. "The Redskins bring together the Washington, D.C., community unlike any other event. There are few things that people in Washington agree about, but they all seem to share an insatiable appetite for the Redskins."

Last week, slightly more than 850,000 Washington households tuned into the wild-card game vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In other words, 65 percent of all televisions in use in the nation's eighth-largest TV market last week were tuned to the Redskins.

"The Redskins broadcasts still remain the primary way to reach as many people in the market in one fell swoop," said Duffy Dyer, general manager of Fox-owned WTTG-TV, which broadcast most of the Redskins games this year.

Corporate lobbyist Booth Jameson, 39, has spent every weekend watching the Redskins in his Capitol Hill home -- about triple the time he spends watching political talk shows.

Since the team has been winning, his world has expanded considerably beyond the political circles he usually traverses.

"You talk to people you ordinarily don't talk to," said Jameson, who came to Washington in 1988 from Indianapolis. "The love and the pride for the Redskins helps cross racial, political, social and generational divides like nothing else. In a town of transients, it's a great common denominator."

Sean T. Connaughton (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, said he generally watches the games with his 11-year-old son, Sean T. Connaughton Jr. "We throw a football . . . in the living room," he said. "He runs with the ball. I have to tackle him. My wife is screaming because she says somebody is going to get hurt. And somebody usually gets hurt."

In a political season of controversies and debacles, the Redskins have become an escape for the political foot soldiers and power brokers that fuel Washington.

"When your weekend comes, you can forget all the problems of the political and policy world and relax with a good Redskins win," added Jameson, who works for EDS, an information technology company. "We usually don't have this feeling in mid-January."

This being Washington, politics are never entirely forgotten.

The Redskins, as urban legend goes, have proved to be a better prognosticator than any presidential poll in history. Since 1944, in 15 of the past 16 presidential elections, if the Redskins lost their last home game before the election, the incumbent party lost the White House. And when the team won, the party stayed in power. The streak was broken in 2004 when the Redskins lost at home to the Green Bay Packers, forecasting a victory for the Democratic contender, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Then there are the political stands about the Redskins. On Sept. 24, 1996, Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio) blasted the Redskins in an address to the House. The team's crime: It made Japanese carmaker Nissan its official vehicle.

"The Washington Redskins now ride a war horse made in Japan. Unbelievable," Traficant told fellow lawmakers. "Now, tell me what is wrong with Ford; how about Chevy, Jeep, Chrysler? Do they matter to America anymore?"

For D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), a mayoral candidate, the playoff games are interfering with the city's other big game: campaigning.

Fenty -- known as a machine when it comes to campaigning door-to-door --had the misfortune of scheduling a campaign event during last week's playoff game. He didn't even try to compete.

"We waited until the end of the game to speak," Fenty said. "I tell you, it was a good feeling speaking after the Redskins won. I don't know what I would have said if they lost."

Mark Isakowitz, a prominent GOP lobbyist who plans to watch today's game, said lawmakers and lobbyists are focused on the Redskins just as they are on national politics, if not more so.

"The very people who were parsing the nuances of [Supreme Court nominee Samuel A.] Alito's words earlier this week will be the ones wearing pig snouts Saturday afternoon, screaming at their televisions," Isakowitz said.

By the way, if football made up the top 20 programs in Washington, what was No. 21? The Sept. 25 episode of "Desperate Housewives."

The Redskins didn't play that day.

Staff writers Jason LaCanfora, Nikita Stewart, Juliet Eilperin, Lisa Rein and Eric M. Weiss contributed to this report.

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