In search of a ratings boost, NBC execs came up with the brilliant idea of having a live presidential debate on last Sunday's West Wing. Overall, the numbers were still weak: According to Lisa de Moraes, the show still finished third with 9.6 million viewers, behind ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (18 million) and CBS's Cold Case (16 million).
But it doesn't end there. Someone at Rockefeller Plaza thought it equally clever to conduct a Zogby poll, asking viewers who they thought performed better: Democratic congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) or Republican senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). Prior to the debate, Santos, the presumed successor to Jed Bartlet, led among younger audiences 54 percent to 37 percent. (And it is the younger audience those execs are desperately after.)
But the post-debate numbers show Senator Vinick now leading Santos among 18- to 29-year-olds by 56 percent to 42 percent. In other words, the age bracket NBC execs covet the most prefer the Republican who is supposed to ultimately lose. As de Moraes points out, Smits was even well-armed with such hard-hitting lines as:
What did liberals do that was so offensive to the Republican Party? I'll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation.... So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, "liberal," as if it's something dirty, something to be ashamed of, something to run away from, it won't work, senator, because I will pick it up, and I will wear that label as a badge of honor.
Somehow, audiences were not seduced by the sweeping rhetoric. Alda as Vinick, I am certain, was supposed to come off as old-fashioned, stodgy, out of touch--exactly the way a Republican should be. Instead Alda, the veteran actor that he is, actually appealed to viewers with his earnestness and folksy charm.
So what do the West Wing's writers and producers do now, knowing their target audience favors, good God, a Republican? Here are three options:
1. It turns out Vinick has some skeletons in his closet. He had an affair. With a male staffer. And, for good measure, he had a drinking and drug problem. How sweet the irony that his own conservative base would abandon him because of his loose morals!
2. Vinick is such a nice guy there's no possible way he could really be a Republican. Maybe he has a change of heart and decides to switch parties like the senator from Vermont. And he becomes Santos's veep. Everybody lives happily ever after.
3. Vinick is assassinated--by a far-right militiaman who used a gun that could have been banned under a Santos administration.
Oh, the possibilities.
2 hours ago