On HBO’s K Street, News, Moviemaking Are All Mixed Up

Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist and co-producer working with actor George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh on HBO’s new political semi-ersatz pseudo-reality show K Street , believes he and his co-workers have created a radical new genre of television. And they may be right.

It’s not just another reality show, it’s another reality . It’s the ability to literally make the news you want-and if you can’t report the news you need, you write the news you want.

It’s the Matrix of television news: If you don’t like what you’ve got, conceptualize what you want.

It’s the Being John Malkovich of television news, only it’s Being James Carville .

“You think about how different 60 Minutes is to Nightly News and how different Dateline is to something like Walter Cronkite,” Mr. Stevens said. “There’s a constant reinvention of these genres. What is news? What’s not news? Is Geraldo Rivera a journalist? Is George Stephanopoulos?”

Mr. Stevens, who worked on George W. Bush’s Presidential campaign in 2000, compared the making of K Street to publishing a serial newspaper that’s written, filmed and edited on the fly, week to week, that features fictional characters who interact with real-life politicians like Senator Orrin Hatch and Democratic Presidential contender Howard Dean. The fictional creations, he said, have a similar effect as journalists.

“Any time you get somebody on the show and they say anything you’d say here, they’re interviews really,” he said. “You create an environment where they answer questions. That’s the conceit of the show. It’s a very unobtrusive filming style: no lighting, no makeup.”

Executive producer Mark Sennet, a former Time magazine photojournalist, said they are pitching K Street as a new political forum on a par with Meet the Press , only without … the journalists.

“Even though we’re not news-but we are news, but also a drama-you have to see it as a way to get your message out,” he said. “And it’s a more intimate way to get your story out: You get to see them as individuals. Our whole thing is to show the other side, where we are part of their lives.”

If politicians and showbiz have always been interspliced-from the cultural confusion of Ronald Reagan’s career to the current Schwarzneggerian crisis, from Richard Nixon on Laugh-In to Al Gore on Saturday Night Live -they’ve never done it like this. The show has already created news with Governor Dean’s appearance, which turned into one of the weirdest political events in recent memory. In the show, former Clinton political operative James Carville-who plays “James Carville” on the show, a version of himself who is working for a fictional political consulting firm called Bergstrom/Lowell-was giving the real-life Mr. Dean a free prep for the debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus on Tuesday, Sept. 9. When Mr. Dean wanted to know how to deflect criticism that Vermont’s predominantly white population made him weak on racial issues, Mr. Carville pointed out that if that logic were followed, then “Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.”

Mr. Dean used the line in the debate and got big laughs, but five days later HBO viewers got a glimpse of the source: invented by Mr. Carville as part of a quasi-fictional scene in a reality-television program, it was scripted reality come to fruition. Add to all this that Mr. Carville, via Mr. Dean, had managed to backhand Senator Lott, who that same week had barred K Street from filming on the floor of the Senate. And what was Mr. Dean, a political outsider, doing taking tips from the consummate Beltway insider?

“I think Dean, on the whole, it helped him a little bit,” said Mr. Carville. “I thought it humanized him and it looked kind of funny.”

Not everyone agreed. Still, not only was the Dean scene entertaining-riveting, really-it was exactly the kind of thing that immediately crushed the news business. Instead of reporting, K Street just fabricated reality.

They’d figured out how to kill all the access problems.

“We would definitely kill to get into a debate prep,” said Kim Hume, the Washington bureau chief for Fox News. “It’s newsworthy. And they made news, and my reaction at the time was to go sideways, and I had no experience in judging this. There was just something disturbing and upsetting about this.”

Ms. Hume was repulsed by the idea that K Stree t itself could be some kind of news hybrid. “From my perspective, I would hate for the country to think this is news or some new form of news,” she said. “It’s produced in a way that’s very confusing between what’s real and not real.”

Still, she said she would keep watching it, that it was fun. That’s because K Street induces a kind of vertigo: Was Mr. Dean getting advice from a half-fictional character, or from a former political operative who happens to be participating in a fiction? Even Mr. Carville admitted it got a little blurry. He told NYTV: “It’s a thin line between what’s real and what’s not real. Hell, sometimes I can’t tell the difference between what’s real and not real.”

On the other hand, Paul Begala, the Clinton-era consultant and CNN Crossfire co-host (with James Carville) who was also filmed prepping Mr. Dean with Mr. Carville, said the line wasn’t as blurry as it seemed: “It was as real as I could make it,” he said. “There was no script. I really did try to give him my best advice. That was authentic.”

But while K Street may not constitute anything that Peter Jennings would call “news,” it does share one key quality with it: Sometimes-especially when real politicians are in it-it’s boring . Senator Hatch’s long-winded oratory on file-sharing in episode 2, for instance, came off like a dull P.S.A., except that he was speaking to a fictional lesbian who had just had a public spat with her ex-girlfriend.

In any case, the real question now is whether any other Presidential candidates will go on the show after the Dean showing. CNN Crossfire panelist Tucker Carlson called Mr. Dean’s gaffe on the show “a fairly huge fuckup,” and said he didn’t expect others to bite. “There are very few candidates whose consultants will let them take that risk,” he said. “The producers of K Street have mercenary motives. Like TV hosts and producers everywhere, your interest is singular: good television.”

“If I were advising a press campaign, I would advise him to stay as far away from that program as possible,” said Anne Wexler, chairwoman of her own lobbying firm, Wexler and Walker. “News can be entertaining at times, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Maybe I have too lofty an idea of what politics is all about, but we shouldn’t bring Presidential politics and campaigns down to that level. There has to be some kind of separation.”

She also called the show’s depiction of lobbyists “ridiculous.”

“There’s nothing real about it, as far as I can tell,” she said. Real-life lobbying, she said, would be too slow-moving and boring for viewers.

But as the campaign unfolds and candidates get more desperate for attention, won’t they come around? “If your only free media choices are being groped by Tim Russert or going on a softball TV show, you take the latter,” said Margaret Carlson, senior writer at Time and a panelist on CNN’s Capitol Gang . “If they give each of them as good a line as they gave Howard Dean, it’s to their advantage …. If he was having James do it for him, it would have cost him $25,000.”

In any case, the form that K Street has created may be here to stay. Mark McKinnon, a Republican political adviser who also worked with the 2000 Bush campaign-and who said he would never advise a candidate to appear on the show-said the confusing ethical issues were beside the point. “Whether it’s a scary idea or a good idea may be irrelevant,” he said. “It may just be the next idea. The question is whether you take advantage of it or not. It’s fraught with danger and opportunity. Those who are willing to defy convention will probably consider it.”

And there’s also the question of whether K Street gets picked up after its first run of 10 episodes. In the end, it may be the sort of thing only an insider could love anyway. But so far, those insiders haven’t been so happy since Jason Robards played Ben Bradlee. After Tammy Haddad, executive producer of MSNBC’s Buchanan and Press , did her turn in the second episode, “the director told me, ‘It was very David Mamet,'” she said. “I was so thrilled .”

Tonight, remember when news was reporters with great ties asking people questions? 60 Minutes is 35 years old today- happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you -and its somewhat legitimate stepson, 60 Minutes II , will feature some exclusive Sinatra footage. [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]

Thursday, Sept. 25

NYTV hunted far and wide and finally found one: an adult fan of NBC’s Friends . Why, we wondered, did this dedicated fan start watching Friends 10 years ago, never missing a single episode, not even once?

We asked her point-blank:

“Because Joey is so hot! ” said the fan, who declined to be identified for this article. Tonight, the beginning of the end. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]

Friday, Sept. 26

Vic Mizzy, a music composer living in Los Angeles, is famous for having written the theme songs for such 1960’s TV hits as Green Acres and The Addams Family . He also scored a bunch of Don Knotts movies, including 1966’s The Ghost and Mister Chicken , and he penned a few pop hits for Doris Day and Perry Como, too.

But after years without a hit, Mr. Mizzy, now 81, is taking matters into his own hands by releasing his first CD. It’s called Songs for the Jogging Crowd , and it’s all arranged, produced and sung by Mr. Mizzy himself. In a world where Mr. Mizzy said he can’t find a decent singer to sing his songs, he didn’t have a choice.

“I have songs!” he said. “And all the good singers are dead! The only one recording who’s any good is Jack Jones, and he’s not recording. All the people l grew up with-Sinatra, Como-they’re all gone. So what does a legit songwriter like me do?”

Songs is quite jaunty, with synthesizers and funny karaoke beats, and covers a wide variety of themes, such as jogging (“The Huff and Puff Song”), ad executives playing tennis (“It’s Your Ad, Sylvia”) and dancing grandmas (“Dance, Granny, Dance”).

But the showstopper is called “Name Dropping,” which has a sing-songy melody and sounds a bit like Ernie from Sesame Street working the crowd at the Ivy:

The guy who lives next door to me

Was in the same fraternity

As Johnny Carson’s chiropractor’s brother

The woman I take yoga from

Just bought a condominium

From Barbra Streisand’s manicurist’s mother ….

Name dropping! Name dropping!

That’s the Hollywood game

Name dropping! Name dropping!

Everybody loves fame ….

The lyrics were written by a woman named Elaine Laron, whom Mr. Mizzy called on the phone one day after reading a poem called “Tinsel, Tinsel, Little Town,” published in Daily Variety .

“It knocked me out,” he recalled. “I looked her up. I said, ‘Elaine, I like what you wrote and I put a melody in it.’ So she comes over and I play her “Tinsel, Tinsel, Little Town.” I thought she was going to collapse! She’s a very nervous woman.

“I have hundreds and hundreds of songs,” he continued. “I’m getting ready for my new CD-it’s called Brooklyn Goes Nashville , for my country songs. And the follow-up will be Nashville Goes Broadway .”

Mr. Mizzy, who grew up in Brooklyn, gets back to New York now and then. Last time he was here, he saw Urinetown . “I took a Styrofoam cup,” he said, “and I gave it to the box-office guy and I said, ‘I understand to get into the show you need a urine sample.’ He called the manager.”

Next time it’s on, watch Green Acres and listen for Vic’s theme song:

Green Acres is the place to be

Farm livin’ is the life for me

Land spreadin’ out so far and wide

Keep Manhattan, just gimme that countryside

New York is where I’d rather stay

I get allergic smelling hay

I just adore a penthouse view

Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue

The chores!

The stores!

Fresh air!

Times Square!

You are my wife

Goodbye, city life

Green Acres, we are there.

Thank you, Vic.

Saturday, Sept. 27

Tonight, we stay home and watch The Breakfast Club . Maybe we’ll even start whistling “Colonel Bogey’s March” from Bridge on the River Kwai . [WPIX, 11, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, Sept. 28

Tonight, that weird new political show, K Street . [HBO, 32, 10 p.m.]

Monday, Sept. 29

NYTV hears that VH1 is returning with all new episodes of I Love the ’80s in late October. This time they better not forget Red Dawn , from 1984, because that movie is so going to be made into a Broadway musical some day. Tonight, take out your copy of US Weekly , flip on VH1’s Celebrity Breakups and then pour an 8 oz. box of Domino sugar down your throat. Then go read some Hegel. [VH1, 19, 8 p.m.]

On HBO’s K Street, News, Moviemaking Are All Mixed Up