When Hollywood producer Rod Lurie created fictional president Mackenzie Allen in 2005 for the show “Commander in Chief” he made no mistake about one of his goals: tilling the soil of popular culture so that it would soon be easier for a real woman to take root in a nonfiction Oval Office.
CBS News had no such goal in 2006 when it gave Katie Couric the anchor’s chair once occupied by Walter Cronkite. But it was a vivid example of the glass ceiling being shattered in one of society’s most prestigious platforms.
So will television be a leading indicator of politics in 2008? Hillary Rodham Clinton had better hope not.
The ratings of both the struggling “CBS Evening News” and the now-canceled ABC drama “Commander in Chief” call into question one of the premises of Clinton’s political strategy: that women are eager to reward role models who break down gender barriers.
On TV, at least, it hasn’t happened.
An analysis of ratings by Nielsen Media Research for Politico showed that competitors to the “Evening News” and “Commander in Chief” scored better with female viewers. The results undermine calculations by ABC and CBS that placing accomplished women in roles traditionally owned by men would be a ratings hit because of the number of female viewers drawn to one of their own.
In particular, white women--a key swing bloc Clinton’s campaign says it intends to focus on should she win the nomination--responded with a shrug to both Couric and “Commander in Chief.”
Efforts to extrapolate political implications from Hollywood studio sets and network news desks should perhaps be taken cum grano salis. But some commentators say the experiences of Couric and Geena Davis, who played the president on the ABC drama, do indeed offer a cautionary tale for Clinton.
“You can’t simply plug a woman into a drama, a sitcom, or an anchor position and expect women are going to watch it,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “The same is true for a female candidate. The presence of a woman does not make women vote or watch just because it’s a woman.”
Polling also underscores the complexity of the gender dynamic for Clinton.
Clinton wins roughly the same number of male voters as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic primary race, according to a variety of surveys. But she wins Democratic women nearly 2-to-1 over Obama, who remains her closest challenger.
But the support she expects to win from Democratic women in the primaries does not necessarily translate to big benefits in a general election. In a hypothetical matchup against former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the Gallup Organization found women favoring Clinton by a modest margin, 53 percent to 47 percent.
But Giuliani had a 16 percent lead over Clinton among male voters—a margin larger than President Bush’s lead over Democrats Al Gore and John F. Kerry in the previous two presidential elections.
“Given the historic nature of having a female Democrat running against a socially liberal Catholic Republican, it is remarkable how similar it appears the results would be to the 2004 election in which two white males representing the mainstream politics of the two parties faced off,” a mid-June Gallup Poll report found.
“Most notably, it appears Clinton would run no stronger among women than Kerry did in 2004--or, for that matter, than Al Gore did when running against Bush in 2000.”
These numbers suggest a lesson Hollywood has already learned the hard way: that symbolism alone goes only so far in influencing public opinion.
Lurie, the creator and executive producer of “Commander in Chief,” is strikingly direct that from the first episod of the show he hoped Hollywood could be a lever for changing Washington.
“Those of us who were intimately involved in the show did have the agenda of trying to get a woman in the White House, not necessarily Hillary Clinton but any woman,” he says. “What we liked was that the audience kept hearing the term ‘Madame President.’”
But not that many people heard the term, especially once it left the air after 19 episodes.
Six in 10 white viewers of “Commander in Chief” were women for the season from September 2005 to August 2006, according to Nielsen data. Yet the Fox competitor in the same time slot, “House,” the story of an anti-social maverick male doctor, earned 1.6 million more white female viewers. More black and Hispanic women also watched “House.”
Couric’s experience is similar. From Aug. 28, 2006, shortly before Couric’s debut, to June 10, 2007, both NBC and ABC, under male anchors, had more female viewers, white women especially, Nielsen found.
Like both shows, Clinton has tailored her campaign style in a variety of explicit and subtle ways to draw women. She announced her run for the presidency in a living room, asked voters to join her for a “conversation,” and offers herself as a mother with a Midwestern upbringing.
In a similar vein, Couric’s broadcast initially featured more conversational segments, and aimed to project her trademark big-sister warmth in the broadcast’s concluding comments.
But Couric has not attracted more female viewers, regardless of race, compared with when Dan Rather anchored the “CBS Evening News” three years earlier. In fact, slightly fewer women view Couric than Rather. Although all networks are hemorrhaging viewers, CBS had hoped Couric could at least serve as a tourniquet for the loss of women.
Whether Couric or Clinton, “what we’re talking about is casting,” says Howard Suber, a professor emeritus of film at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Suber and Lurie say that Couric’s poor ratings at CBS may have less to do with her gender than Couric’s persona being “rather soft,” as Lurie puts it.
Lurie notes that he attempted the opposite strategy in “Commander in Chief.” And indeed, the show did achieve strong ratings early on.
What early success the show enjoyed, Lurie believes, was based in emphasizing the strength of its main character. Davis, as President Allen, immediately established her national security bona fides in the show’s title and script. “We were trying to eliminate the concerns about a female president right off the bat,” Lurie recalls.
He surmises that, “This is why Hillary Clinton talks a little tougher, a little more jingoism and a little more militarism than the other Democratic candidates. She must hype her rhetoric because she’s a woman.”
In the pilot episode of “Commander in Chief,” the first executive act of President Allen was to send special forces into Nigeria to free a persecuted woman from execution. But some felt these compensatory gestures felt forced and overdone.
“So much of the show was about her being a female president, not about her being president,” says Marita Sturken, a cultural studies professor at New York University. “Commander in Chief’s” failure to win more women than its lead competitor reflects “an ambivalence” toward gender among the audience in a show that was consumed with gender, Sturken adds.
The show may have had other problems sustaining audience beyond gender politics. Davis never conveyed the gravitas of actresses such as Meryl Streep or Glenn Close, who once played a vice president.
To Clinton’s benefit, her demeanor may be closer in character to Close than Davis. Clinton will get anther marker for comparison next fall, when actress Cherry Jones joins Fox drama “24” as its next president of the United States, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
UCLA’s Suber predicts that Clinton’s success or failure, like that of Couric and Davis, will ultimately hinge less on gender identity than other factors, tangible and more ephemeral, that influence whether voters believe Clinton fits the part.
“It’s not that different from the discussion producers have when they are talking about casting actors,” Suber says. “Who is believable in a role? ‘Well, what have they done?’ is always the first question. Everybody typecasts.”