Is Hill Ready for Reality TV?

Posted March 14, 2003 at 6:06pm

Move over “Mister Sterling” and watch out “West Wing.” A new television show devoted to Washington’s political culture is on the way.

Except this time, instead of paying high-priced Hollywood actors to portray the army of aides that serve in these dramas’ leading roles, this show intends to follow the real lives of eight or so Capitol Hill aides.

“The show is a cross between MTV’s ‘Real World’ and ‘The West Wing,’” said Peter Schankowitz, executive vice president of development for Vin Di Bona Productions, the company developing the show.

Vin Di Bona is well-known in Hollywood, with dozens of credits to its name, including “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” which currently anchors ABC’s Friday night prime time lineup.

Schankowitz said he dreamed up the concept of producing a reality show following the lives of Capitol Hill aides about nine months ago, but really began working on the project in earnest about three weeks ago.

At least one network and one cable outlet are interested in the show, said Schankowitz, who refused to name the companies he is talking to about the project.

“This is one of those things that is going to be of interest to just about every network and cable outlet, because it is a sexy idea,” he said.

Sexy, though, can be a taboo subject on Capitol Hill, where most Members look for buttoned-up conduct from their staffers. But this is not always the case.

Former House aide Diana Davis resigned her post in Rep. Mike Rogers’ (R-Mich.) office in 2001 after a steamy article in Vanity Fair documented her personal life and portrayed a group of Democratic House Members as being callous for partying at the Capital Grille two days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

And, of course, Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) was run out of office last year for his alleged involvement with Chandra Levy, a young intern who went missing and was later found dead. Condit was questioned about Levy’s disappearance, but he was never named a suspect.

While some people might think lawmakers would balk at allowing an aide to bear his or her heart and soul on national television, Jack Abramoff, a powerful Washington lobbyist with an extensive Hollywood background, said the show could work if done correctly.

“I think they are going to be able to find offices who are willing to do it,” said Abramoff, whose Hollywood resume includes producing the Cold War flick “Red Scorpion.”

Abramoff, who is talking to Di Bona about helping the production company make contacts in the nation’s capital, said he thinks this reality series could be a hit.

“Assuming they can keep the staffers from the different political parties from killing each other, it might make a good show,” he said.

But it’s the lawmakers who are going to make the decision, and news of the show drew mixed reaction last week.

“I hope they don’t do it,” said Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.). “It kind of trivializes what we are doing here. Already there is a perception across the country that we don’t do much here in Washington.”

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a vocal critic of Hollywood’s exploitation of sex and violence, offered a much harsher critique of what direction the show might lead.

“If it is one of these exploitative, sexually oriented reality shows, I think it is despicable that they would do that and in the process try to make profit off of demeaning representative democracy,” Brownback said. “Maybe if it is totally different than that and it is going to be showing aides working in a positive light, struggling through problems in a positive way, that is a different thing.”

Still, Sen. John Ensign (D-Nev.), who lives in a group house with a handful of other Members, said it might offer young people a window into a world that they don’t know much about.

“As long as people kept confidential what should be kept confidential, I think it would be very interesting,” said Ensign, raising the potential that national secrets could slip on camera. “I think it could be very positive if it is true.

“If you show what these young people are doing up here, show that they have a good time but they work their rear ends off … I think it would be good.”

This is the angle Schankowitz said he will try to pitch, and emphasize that the show will not follow the lead of other reality based shows that pander to the “lowest common denominator.”

“We are a quality production company and we don’t do the sort of dirt TV, as if you will,” he said.

Instead, Schankowitz said he wants to capture the reality of being an underpaid Capitol Hill aide saddled with enormous responsibility, but still facing the challenges of juggling young adulthood.

“I think this is a way to do television about younger people that shows they aren’t slackers,” he said. “They want to get somewhere for different reasons, and that is a compelling story for me.”

Schankowitz acknowledged that the show would not shy away from the “interpersonal” side of participants.

So far, the show has received positive feedback from a handful of Hill offices that have been approached, but Thomas Jackson, manager of development at Di Bona, would not name the offices they had spoken with.

Even though the show is in the development stages, Schankowitz said he envisions having a cast of eight or nine Hill aides living in a group house for six months and going about their daily lives. It is unlikely the cast would be put up in a posh pad, as participants were in the “Real World” series, and no decision yet has been made on compensation — besides free rent.

The show’s producer and participants will need to abide by House and Senate ethics rules.

“I don’t know if that makes it stickier with their bosses or easier,” Schankowitz said. “Part of the mix is they would be living somewhere for free for six months.

“I imagine with their kind of salaries that would mean something,” he added

The preliminary plan for the show is to cast a wide net on the Hill to see how much interest it would generate, but Schankowitz said he is not opposed to including White House and agency staffers, or even lobbyists, in the group house dynamic.

“From a TV sales point, I am open to everybody from Congress to the White House,” Schankowitz said. “I think the mix would be great, but the key focus needs to be in the legislature.”

If Di Bona is able to make inroads in the next couple of months, Schankowitz said he thinks they can complete filming by the end of this year. Other key details such as casting are still being worked out, Jackson said.