Hollywood on the Hill

New Shows Feature Congress, But Will America Tune In?

Posted January 23, 2003 at 2:39pm

On a recent frigid Friday night, nearly two dozen Congressional staffers gathered at Politiki, a Capitol Hill lounge, clutching beers, munching burgers and huddling around three television sets, leaning in close to catch the bits of dialogue filtering through classic rock riffs.

By all accounts it was a run-of-the-mill Capitol Hill happy hour. But these staffers weren’t here to catch the latest Wizards match-up, Hoya tipoff or NFL highlights.

This time it was all about them: Their workplace — the greatest deliberative body in the world — was on the small screen.

“I think it’s great they are sensationalizing our lives — we need some sensation,” gushed Allison Rhodes, assistant press secretary to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), about 15 minutes into the second installment of the new NBC Senate drama “Mister Sterling.”

The show chronicles the experiences of freshman Sen. Bill Sterling — appointed to fill the seat of his deceased predecessor — as he navigates the Capitol’s corridors.

“Oh, my God,” one staffer from a GOP Senate office cried during a scene in which Sterling meets with a fictional American-Indian party-switching Senator from Arizona by the name of Thunder Hawk Jackson, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain real-life American-Indian Senator from Colorado.

About the same time, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) was on a commuter flight between Denver and Durango, Colo., and missed the episode. When he finally sat down to watch the show a few days later, he remembers being a bit taken back.

“The only thing I can see really different was I got a ponytail and ride a motorcycle and he hasn’t been on a motorcycle yet — but maybe that’s in the next episode,” Campbell quipped, adding that he appreciates the fact that the show features an American-Indian character.

The dramatization of Capitol Hill could get an added boost in the next few months, when the number of prime-time TV shows about Congress is expected to double. The Capitol Hill-based comedy “Charlie Lawrence” — starring Nathan Lane as a gay actor-turned-Representative from New Mexico — is slated to premiere in March on CBS.

“The hallways [of Congress] are filled with interesting moments, uncomfortable, unwelcome encounters, politicking and intrigue. It’s a great location,” said “Mister Sterling” creator and Executive Producer Lawrence O’Donnell.

Approval Ratings?

Even so, the duo of new political series comes at a time when any broader trend toward such shows is difficult to detect. A recent episode of ABC’s “The Bachelorette” bested NBC’s “The West Wing” by 79 percent among the much-sought-after 18- to 49-year-old crowd. The top 20 prime-time lineup is dominated by “Friends,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Law and Order.”

“When I travel outside the District, I find people totally uninterested in what goes on here,” observed Bernard Mergen, professor of American studies at George Washington University, explaining why Capitol Hill-themed shows often have less-than-stellar ratings.

Both CBS’ “Citizen Baines,” which looked at the life of a Senator who returns home after defeat, and the WB’s “D.C.,” which followed a group of 20-something politicos trying to make a go of it in the nation’s capital, bombed after just a handful of airings. Last year, two other programs then in development — ABC’s “Capitol City” and CBS’ “Georgetown” — failed to make it onto the 2002 fall schedule or get picked up as midseason replacements.

“If you look at the numbers for ‘The West Wing,’ they dropped dramatically, and I think that any network executive is going to look at that before they pick up an expensive political drama,” said one industry insider.

For the moment, “Mister Sterling” (which features a fictional Roll Call reporter) seems to have escaped a major ratings rout, premiering in the top 30 and winning its time slot, though its numbers fell slightly the second week.

“Charlie Lawrence” Executive Producer Jeffrey Richman, who has also served as executive producer for hits such as “Frasier” and “Wings,” is careful to minimize the importance of the political arena as backdrop when appealing to the general public.

“It’s basically an office comedy that just happens to be in the office of a Congressman,” Richman said of “Charlie Lawrence,” wryly adding that last year’s farm bill is unlikely to get much play on the show.

No Filming Allowed

Beyond the challenges presented by current television trends, TV shows that focus on Congress must also contend with the added obstacles posed by filming restrictions, which House and Senate officials have interpreted to fall under the U.S. Code’s Title 40 prohibitions on the commercial use of the Capitol building and grounds.

While the Senate, House or both chambers can pass resolutions allowing some filming for commercial purposes to proceed, exceptions are rare.

“When we get calls asking if people can film we simply say, ‘No, we are sorry, you are not allowed to,’” said Jessica Gissubel, public information officer for the Capitol Police. “If we are told by Congress, ‘Hey, they are going to be filming here,’ then we accept that and we figure out the security rules that will go around that.”

In 1962, the Senate gave producers the green light to film “Advise and Consent” in the Russell Senate Office Building — with rather infelicitous results.

The Senate “did allow them pretty much free run of the Russell Building, and it turned out to be a terrible disaster. There was wear and tear on the rooms and the furnishings,” said Senate Historian Richard Baker.

As late as the early 1980s, Joe Becker, whose company thinkfilm produces the Washington scenes of “The West Wing,” remembers shooting a short documentary on the Capitol grounds while a film student at American University.

Heightened security concerns have significantly reduced the likelihood of such access today, however.

“It’s the biggest problem,” asserted O’Donnell, referring to the strict prohibition against commercial filming. “There’s really nothing like [the Capitol buildings] in the world … and it’s an incredible challenge for set designers.”

Accordingly, “Mister Sterling” designers have recreated most of Russell, some of the Capitol offices and a piece of the Senate floor, said O’Donnell. The show also plans to make at least three week-long visits to Washington each year to collect footage. (“Charlie Lawrence” — a sitcom — won’t have this problem, though Richman said the title sequence would likely include some Washington shots.)

Reality Television

Moreover, attempts to maintain an aura of realism in “Mister Sterling” and “Charlie Lawrence” led both shows to seek advice from staffers, with Sterling hiring three Congressional aides away from the Hill to work as assistants.

O’Donnell — himself a former aide to then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and a one-time chief of staff for the Senate Finance Committee — admits to taking notes every day he worked in the world’s most exclusive club. He based Sterling’s legislative director, Tommy Doyle, on his one-time Moynihan colleague Dan Crane, now a Washington lobbyist. And Sterling’s office number, Russell 464, is the same as that held by Moynihan when he was in Congress, said Crane.

As for the future viability of shows such as “Mister Sterling,” Hillites themselves remain undecided, though some, like Anahita Nemat of Sen. Gordon Smith’s (R-Ore.) office, expressed their unqualified admiration.

“I love it,” declared the bright-eyed intern, who plans to get a job in a Congressional district office after she graduates this year from Pacific University.

Still, others pointed to the show’s 8 p.m. Friday time slot and the need to escape Hill realities in their spare time as factors why the show is unlikely to generate significant buzz in the Capitol community.

Said Patrick Baugh, executive assistant to Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.): “I think ‘Joe Millionaire’ and ‘The Bachelorette’ have probably gotten more talk around the water cooler.”