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Burbank, Calif. -- The Fox television network has announced it will air a prime-time pageant for would-be presidential candidates on Tuesday, July 4. The live event, which will be broadcast nationwide by Fox television affiliates and the Fox PayPerView network, features the former talk show host Phil Donahue as MC along with an all-star jury, including television and film star Tim Allen, comedian Whoopi Goldberg, country music siren Shania Twain, and former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Gary Hart.
Dubbed Star Search Meets Nightline, the pageant will be the first-ever entertainment event to launch a candidate for public office. The winner of the contest will receive a cash prize of $1 million in "seed money," and the services of a top-notch public relations firm to assist him or her in the upcoming presidential campaign.
Hoping to create the kind of "buzz" that usually accompanies the national conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties, the producers of "Pageant 2000" are not "naming names," but have released several reports on the show's high-profile participants. Among those rumored to be contestants are a former state governor, a dot-com multimillionaire, a Presbyterian minister, a stay-at-home mom, an actor, a college professor, a retired U.S. Navy officer, and, of course, more than a few lawyers.
Fox predicts the audience for Pageant 2000 will reach the 40 million mark, making it more popular among television viewers than both the Democratic and Republican national conventions of 1996 combined. Executive producer Patricia Choate, whose previous credits include co-production of the popular and controversial Fox television game show Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?, claims the political pageant will not only set ratings history, it will also "transform the way Americans enjoy the electoral process."
"We are putting the American people in the front row of the nomination process," boasts Choate, and mixed metaphors aside, she may be right. The winner of Pageant 2000 will be determined by audience members, who will be asked to cast their votes online by visiting the bipartisan political information Web site Grassroots.com, or via telephone by calling a toll-free number sponsored by MCI Worldcom. Once these votes are tallied, the winner will campaign as an independent.
Because the Federal Election Commission imposes limits on the sources and amounts of presidential campaign contributions, Choate's team has arranged for the contest's million-dollar prize, arranged by the Internet start-up Proscient Technologies, to be disbursed by the Los Angeles offices of accounting firm Ernst & Young. Furthermore, Choate has promised that the pageant-produced candidate will receive no special coverage following the July 4 televised event to prevent any allegations of favoritism on the part of Fox television's owner, Rupert Murdoch, or his News Corp.
In accordance with FEC regulations, Proscient's $1 million contribution was culled from 500 $1,000 donations from employees of the firm. Each individual signed over a $1,000 bonus to the as-yet-unknown candidate's campaign fund, and has pledged to contribute an additional $1,000 to a so-called "527 group" called Citizens United for a Better America. Once limited to third-party causes like the NRA or the NAACP, such groups, which are named after a section of the federal tax code, can raise and spend unrestricted amounts of money without public disclosure.
Prominent public interest groups are decrying Fox's Presidential Pageant 2000 as a desecration of the democratic process and a prime example of how television has turned representative democracy into nothing more than million-dollar popularity contests. "Our biggest problem used to be that campaigns were about candidates, not issues," bemoans Nate Rolph, executive director of the group Democracy Yesterday. "But if we experience more setbacks like this Fox special, campaigns won't even be about candidates anymore."
MC Phil Donahue, who returned from retirement to host the special, takes a different view. "More people participate in television than they do in federal elections, that's just a fact," explains Donahue. "And if we can make the electoral process more interactive by putting it on TV, then I don't know what people are complaining about."
South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments? Holler@sttf.org.