A brand-new television talk show went on the air this week in Iowa, land of would-be presidents, political reporters and Feb. 8 caucus-goers.
At least it looks like a talk show. It even breaks for commercials.
"Welcome to 'Perspective '88' with Pat Robertson, candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States!" the announcer booms over rousing theme music, as a computer-generated map of America floats across the screen. "And now your host ... Yolanda Gaskins!"
A familiar face on the Black Entertainment Television cable network, Gaskins teases today's sub ject -- the "crisis in education" -- and introduces Robertson, who strides on stage. He gets a big hand from a studio audience composed largely of men in blue blazers.
"Have a seat," Gaskins tells her guest. "Thank you for joining us on this show."
"We're talking about my favorite subject," the candidate says with a grin.
Robertson might have added, but doesn't, that, after all, it's his show, his host and his studio audience -- all bought, hired or invited by the Robertson campaign. Actually, it's 30 minutes of paid political advertising, and identified as such as required by law. But it's up to individual stations how much to emphasize this fact during the broadcast. When Gaskins leaves her seat with a microphone -- "we've decided to move into the audience," she confides -- the questions are essentially Robertson's questions, screened by his producer.
"It is spontaneity, it's not an illusion," said Constance Snapp, the aforementioned producer, who doubles as the Robertson campaign's communications director. "It was taped in real time, before a live audience. These are real questions."
"It's done all the time," said campaign press secretary Scott Hatch. " 'Donahue' is not done live. 'Wheel of Fortune' is not done live. We're in the business of taped television. Game shows put up Christmas decorations when it's not really Christmas. You can read into it whatever you want to read into it. It's a television show, something we produced to get the message out."
The mega-commercial masquerading as a talk show is not a new development in presidential politics. It was effectively used by Richard Nixon in 1968 during his successful campaign against Hubert Humphrey. But Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and erstwhile host of "The 700 Club," is one of the more sophisticated practitioners.
Snapp said the show on education is one of four taped last month in a Norfolk studio before an audience made up of his supporters and others who responded to campaign leaflets. The other shows -- to be aired in Iowa and, in coming weeks, such presidential primary states as South Dakota, Florida, Virginia and Texas -- promote Robertson's views on foreign policy, the economy and the family. Snapp declined to say how much the campaign was spending to buy time -- which costs as much as $9,000 for a single half hour in Iowa's "Quad Cities" market -- but said, "It's a drop in the bucket."
While Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis yesterday bought an hour on several Iowa cable systems for a live Q&A session with senior citizens, Robertson is the first presidential aspirant so far to widely program the mega-commercial on traditional broadcast outlets.
Several Iowa station managers who are running Robertson's show expressed surprise at its three two-minute breaks, known as "black holes" in the TV trade. "It makes me think that it was originally produced for some other purpose," said general manager Mike Smith of KTIV in Sioux City. Smith said that when the education installment was aired last Tuesday, in the 6:30 p.m. "Family Ties" time slot, the engineers didn't expect the "dead air" and had to scurry to shove in station promos and public service announcements.
Snapp said that's what they're there for, although "ultimately I'm going to put my own commercial in there." A commercial within a commercial? "That's the way I set it up," Snapp said. "That's the way it's formatted, like a 30-minute talk show. That's what people are used to."
"I don't see television programs with political candidates that say, 'For the next one minute, you're going to be seeing a political advertisement,' " said press secretary Hatch. "It's just not done. You want to be as slickly produced as you possibly can."
"It's so funny to hear you say 'slick,' " Snapp said. "We put it together with a bandaid."
"It's our 30 minutes and we can do with it whatever we want to do with it," said Hatch. "If I want to, I can go out and stand on my head for 30 minutes. A television talk show format is a very comfortable thing for Americans to watch, a format that has proven to be very effective, and we produced it that way."