Conversation

A Conversation with Tom Leach ’08

Photo by Jon Rou

Tom Leach ’08, founder and president of Media RED, discusses the impact of reality TV on the 2016 presidential election.

Does reality television shape our politics today?
Television on the whole has a huge impact on all of pop culture, including politics and entertainment. Any time you have something that tens of millions of people are tuning into every single week it permeates through politics and pop culture.

How far back do you trace television’s impact on perceptions and politics?
The first televised debate was between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was less known, but his ability to look the part and to communicate with not only the moderator but also the audience at large, some observers argue, was the turning point in his becoming president of the United States. Ronald Reagan, before being governor of California or president, ran the Screen Actors Guild and was a television star. Arnold Schwarzenegger, before being governor, was an international movie star and, ironically, will replace Donald Trump as the host of “The Apprentice” just days before Donald Trump is inaugurated in January 2017.

What has been the impact of Donald Trump’s role in “The Apprentice” on his rise to prominence in national politics?
Before running for president, Donald Trump connected for nearly a decade with tens of millions of people who tuned in regularly to learn from and/or be entertained by him. The ability to capture the audience, to know how to “push buttons,” to see what will drive controversy and ratings — a lot of his tactics stem from his experience on TV. If you’re not in tune with the audience, your show is over. If you don’t know how to create a reaction, you’re not relevant to television. For better or worse, that [skill set] has permeated into politics.

How has reality TV affected the conduct of political campaigns?
You have to be louder now. Reality television has pushed the envelope in terms of what you have to say or do to get attention. People need to be stimulated in a way that shocks or surprises them, and that has muddied the waters in terms of entertainment and politics.

So are we to conclude Donald Trump’s television career was nothing but helpful to his political career?
That Donald Trump was introduced to and became known by so many during “The Apprentice” has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in the sense that he created a persona through television, but the problem — the curse — is he also backed himself into a corner. There is a certain percentage of the population that will never think there is more depth to him than just a reality television show character. A lot of people love reality television, and a lot of people despise it. That same divide describes people who love Donald Trump and despise Donald Trump.

What lessons will be drawn from the 2016 presidential election about television’s potential in political campaigns in the future?
In previous elections, candidates who raised the most money typically attracted the most eyeballs to their message. But this year, the candidate who spent the least on ads out of every primary contender, Donald Trump, has dominated the television conversation, to the dismay of political pundits. He had a tweet or sound bite for every news item and a nickname for every candidate, and built anticipation around his “must-see” press conferences.

On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton took a very different approach. She outspent Trump on television ads down the homestretch of the campaign by a margin of 20-to-1. She kept her television appearances to a minimum and sought more control over her own narrative. Future political campaigns will be a hybrid of the two: Campaigns will continue to spend millions of dollars on television ads, but there will undoubtedly be a greater focus on earning free media as much as possible.

Tom Leach ’08
Lecturer in the School of Film and Television.
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