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If BCRA is allowed to stand and "American Candidate" passes BCRA muster, maybe Barbra Streisand can team up with Rob Reiner and Alec Baldwin to air a political sitcom that could rival Friends on "Must See TV."



BCRA and the Hollywood Loophole

Last February, in a not so fitting tribute to Valentine’s Day, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (BCRA), an egregious assault on the First Amendment rights of all Americans to engage in the political process. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Representatives Chris Shays (R-CT) and Marty Meehan (D-MA), along with their "reform" supporters, are now unhappy with the way the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is interpreting the legislation in drafting its regulations. Lawsuits are being prepared and attacks are being lobbed at the FEC as part of an exhaustive effort to impose further restrictions — or outright bans — on political speech that "reformers" were unable to obtain from Congress earlier this year.

The media stands to gain enormous power in the political process should BCRA be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, as they’re exempt. That much is clear to everyone following this issue, especially the editorial page editors of nearly every major newspaper in the country. However, what’s not being discussed, much to the delight of "reformers," is what appears to be an exemption for Hollywood.

Everyone who tuned in to the much anticipated two-hour season premier of The West Wing — tens of millions of us to be exact — should have recognized that producer Aaron Sorkin was clearly taking notes during the BCRA debate. Interwoven throughout the show were thinly-veiled political advertisements for the Democratic Party and its platform, not to mention an assortment of gratuitous slaps leveled at the fictional presidential candidate Robert Ritchie, whose character bears a striking resemblance to President George W. Bush. While a (real) "clearly identified candidate for political office" was never mentioned during the show, one might argue the show falls into the category of political "sham ads" from which incumbent "reformers" worked so hard to insulate themselves. Who knows, maybe McCain and Company can convince the FEC to qualify it as such.

Then there is "American Candidate," the new reality TV show being developed by Fox Television’s cable network FX. Playing off the reality hit show "American Idol," Fox has set out to find the "People’s Choice" for the 2004 presidential election. (Before you get too excited, Justin and Kelly are too young to be president. But their candidacies would have certainly done wonders to reverse voter apathy.) According to the show’s producers, viewers will hand pick their choice for the White House from a list of 100 pre-screened contenders. All applicants must fill out a lengthy questionnaire, submit a video of themselves explaining why they’re suited for the most powerful job in the world and produce a petition signed by at least 50 supporters. Should the "People’s Choice" actually decide to pursue the Oval Office after he or she is announced the winner on or about July 4, 2004, FX will then continue to follow the candidate on his/her campaign trail through the November elections.

"Reformers" could have never anticipated this. The concept certainly threatens their incumbent protection measures outlined in BCRA, but will the show directly violate BCRA?

"American Candidate’s" qualification requirements will entail the spending of money by each contestant; gathering signatures and making a video tape is not free. Couple that with travel expenses, meals, and a variety of other costs and it won’t take long for the contestants to reach the $1,000 threshold that triggers reporting requirements.

In addition, if the contestant crowned the "People’s Candidate" does in fact choose to enter the presidential race, will FX, in covering the candidacy, be in violation of the new "electioneering communication" restrictions imposed by BCRA? And what about the show’s corporate sponsors that will advertise during its airing? Will the advertising costs be considered campaign contributions under BCRA? What about the show’s production costs?

You get the point.

Perhaps Fox would be wise to seek an advisory opinion from the FEC before moving forward in order to avoid the wrath of McCain. Oh yeah, that won’t work. We’ve already been told the FEC is evil and should be eliminated.

All of this may be moot if the Supreme Court sides with the more than 80 plaintiffs spanning the political spectrum, including the Center for Individual Freedom, that are challenging the constitutionality of BCRA. If it doesn’t, Hollywood may have just found an even more powerful niche in U.S. politics.

If BCRA is allowed to stand and "American Candidate" passes BCRA muster, maybe Barbra Streisand can team up with Rob Reiner and Alec Baldwin to air a political sitcom that could rival Friends on "Must See TV."

Hasn’t Alec Baldwin moved out of the country yet, as promised?

This story appeared as an Op-Ed in The Washington Times on October 7, 2002.

[Posted September 26, 2002]