March 20, 2023

As Obama Accepts Offers, Late-Night Television Longs for Romney

Landing a presidential nominee as a guest.

The excitement at the show about a possible walk-on by Mr. Romney was tangible. But sometime that Friday, interest from the Romney camp cooled; the Republican candidate did not follow the precedent set in other recent presidential races by John McCain and George W. Bush by appearing on television’s most famous address for political satire.

A deal with the Romney camp has not been as close since, though Mr. Michaels said he is keeping offers open to both campaigns for a last-second appearance. That happened four years ago when Mr. McCain appeared as a guest three days before Election Day, performing a memorable sketch with Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, spoofing a home shopping appearance in a late appeal for cash.

Mr. Michaels is hardly alone in his pursuit: every other late-night television producer has been chasing Mr. Romney for weeks to try to secure a guest appearance, with no success so far. Mr. Romney also has declined invitations from a host of other media outlets who have landed President Obama for interviews, including MTV and NBC News, which was given two days of access to the president during his campaign tour last week.

The opposite has been true for President Obama, who has taken advantage of the open invitation from the late-night shows to make extended guest appearances on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” on Comedy Central, and Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” on NBC, racking up strong ratings in each case. (Michelle Obama visited Jimmy Kimmel on ABC.) Mr. Obama visited David Letterman on CBS last month and did a sketch, “Slow Jammin’ the News,” with NBC’s Jimmy Fallon in April.

In the waning days of an intensely close election, one campaign has clearly made a calculation that the late-night audience is valuable and worth courting, while the other has maintained late-night silence.

Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said the willingness to appear with interviewers like Mr. Stewart, Mr. Leno and Mr. Letterman has to do with reaching out in less conventional ways to undecided voters.

“Most regular viewers of the news made up their minds a long time ago,” Mr. LaBolt said in an e-mail message. “So while the president has continued to do interviews in traditional news venues, our goal in the final days of the race must be to reach voters where they are — whether that’s crisscrossing the country asking for their vote or appearing on the programs they tune into on a daily basis.”

Appearing with Mr. Stewart had the benefit of playing to an especially concentrated group of younger adults. “The Daily Show” scores the best ratings in late night among the 18- to 49-year-old viewers so valuable in television. Those viewers are hard to reach on news programs. (Mr. Obama’s appearance drew the biggest audience on “The Daily Show” this year, 2.8 million.)

Mr. Stewart’s network, Comedy Central, coincidentally released a research study this month that asked so-called millennials in what venue they would most like to hear a candidate be interviewed. By a large margin they responded: on a late-night comedy show.

Appearing with Mr. Leno (where he lifted “The Tonight Show” audience average by almost 50 percent), the president gained another advantage, according to a producer of one rival late-night show. “Jay is Ohio,” the producer said, asking not to be identified discussing a competitor’s strengths.

Mr. Leno has always projected a more mid-American appeal than most other late-night hosts, a conclusion borne out by some numbers. Mr. Leno averages a 3 rating in Cleveland, but only a 2.1 in New York.

Mr. Obama seemed well-aware of the potential to score with Ohio voters, when he joked with Mr. Leno about how Halloween would be different his year from last when Mrs. Obama offered trick-or-treaters only fruit. “Candy for everybody!” Mr. Obama joked, adding that if a child could prove he was from Ohio, he would get an extra-large Hershey bar.

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For Laurie Goldberg of TLC, ‘No Comment’ Is an Art

As the top spokeswoman for the cable channel TLC, Ms. Goldberg has handled the spotlight on Sarah Palin’s reality show, the rise and fall of “Jon Kate Plus 8,” and a legal spat over “Sister Wives,” a show about polygamists, just to name a few.

Last month, it was a documentary-style reality show about Muslim families in Michigan, “All-American Muslim,” that suddenly became a press sensation. A man in Florida called for an advertiser boycott, and Lowe’s, the home improvement retailer, listened. By Dec. 12, reporters were calling, cable news producers were scrambling and politicians were fuming.

Ms. Goldberg said almost nothing on the record about the controversy, lest she spur more coverage. But behind the scenes she was trying to influence reporters’ views of the mostly imaginary boycott, counseling the show’s cast to stay positive and answering a call from the music and fashion entrepreneur Russell Simmons, who had pledged to buy up any remaining ad time.

“Been quite a day … I thought the BlackBerry might explode,” Ms. Goldberg wrote on Facebook the night of Dec. 12.

“I can relate!” replied Shadia McDermott, one of the show’s most prominent cast members.

“Give us a day. Things will turn around,” Ms. Goldberg answered. “I’ve got your back.”

Then another of Ms. Goldberg’s friends replied, “Probably makes you wish you had ‘Jon and Kate’ back again, huh?”

Despite all its controversial shows, TLC’s brand has remained mostly unblemished these last few years. That may be in part because while Ms. Goldberg is genial and helpful with reporters off the record, she routinely doles out no-comments to them on the record, thereby refusing to make big stories bigger. She declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.

“She lets the programs do the talking; she keeps the brands on the sidelines,” said David Leavy, who heads up corporate communications for TLC’s parent, Discovery Communications.

Just as important, Ms. Goldberg forges close friendships with the cast members of TV shows — as shown by the Facebook conversations — and guides them through the glare of the press.

“She’s in a really unique position because she works with reality-show talent that don’t have publicists of their own,” said Kate Coyne, an assistant managing editor for People magazine, who met Ms. Goldberg while covering the very public collapse of Kate and Jon Gosselin’s marriage.

“Laurie Goldberg is just about the only person I’ve ever seen say to Kate Gosselin, ‘You can’t do that.’ She’s very, very maternal in that sense,” Ms. Coyne said.

Few viewers know it, but public relations pros are often intimately involved in the decision-making at TV channels. Not only are they in the room, so to speak, they are speaking up.

“We’ve been fairly prominent in the pop culture,” said Eileen O’Neill, who oversees TLC, “and I don’t think I would have had the confidence to navigate it without Laurie’s skill set.”

When Ms. O’Neill was promoted to oversee both TLC and the Discovery Channel, she swiftly promoted Ms. Goldberg to a similar public relations position. Together, they sometimes even plan for controversies that don’t arise. When Discovery began showing “Weed Wars,” a reality show about a medical marijuana business, “we prepared for bigger issues to emerge, and they didn’t,” Ms. O’Neill said.

But at least a couple times each week, there’s a flare-up of one kind or another — one of the consequences of creating stars out of so many ordinary people. Last Friday, Ms. Goldberg’s Utah vacation was interrupted by questions about the authenticity of “Moonshiners,” a new show on Discovery. She declined to comment.

Ms. Goldberg majored in education in college and worked briefly as a photographer before becoming a public relations representative for trading card makers, a blues musician and the Cartoon Network. Her sister, the late humor writer Margo Kaufman, helped her to see from a reporter’s perspective.

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