By Melissa Grego and Josef Adalian
HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - Entertainment and politics are about to collide as never before via a sure-to-be provocative new reality series from FX.
The News Corp.-owned cable channel has pacted with documentary veteran R.J. Cutler ("The War Room"), director Jay Roach ("Austin Powers") and producer Tom Lassally ("Totally Hidden Video") to mount an ambitious two-year endeavor that will culminate in the American public choosing a "people's candidate" to run for president of the United States in 2004.
"It's like a cross between 'The War Room' and 'American Idol,"' Cutler told Daily Variety. "We will be making available to every American who is qualified, by virtue of the Constitution, the opportunity to run for president."
Just as "American Idol" went searching for undiscovered musical talent, Cutler said "American Candidate" will be on the hunt for untapped political and leadership skill.
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"We're trying to see if there's a young Abe Lincoln out there, somebody whose vision could turn on the public in an exciting way," he said.
The series will be seeking "the Jesse Venturas of the world, finding messages people want to hear," added Kevin Reilly, FX's president of entertainment. "Hopefully, we'll find some very qualified civil servant who lacks a power base and maybe also a plumber from Detroit who (tells) it like it is."
To land a slot on the show, applicants will have to fill out questionnaires, provide videotapes in which they explain why they would make a great president and put together a group of 50 supporters from their community who will serve as sponsors.
The process likely will get under way in January 2003, with the first of a minimum 13 episodes likely to air starting in January 2004.
A panel of yet-to-be-determined experts will assess the applicant pool and choose about 100 candidates for the start of the series. During subsequent episodes, candidates will square off in numerous competitions, from debates to deciding whether to use opposition research to slam other contestants.
The number of semifinalists will be whittled down each week, based on a point system that will factor in competition results, live audience response and telephone/Internet voting. Each episode will originate from all-American locales such as Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty.
The final episode will be an "American Candidate" convention, held on the National Mall in Washington around July 4, 2004 -- about the same time the Republicans and Democrats will be prepping their conventions. In a live episode, viewers will then determine the winning candidate from among three finalists.
The winner will then decide whether to launch an official campaign. If he or she decides to make a run, a series of "War Room"-like specials will be produced following the candidate through Election Day.
The candidate will have to meet the standards for election set forth in the U.S. Constitution, which means each will have to be a natural-born American citizen who's at least 35 years old as of Jan. 20, 2005 and has lived in the States for the last seven years.
Cutler said the series will test the openness of U.S. democracy.
"We're (taught) that every young boy or girl can grow up to be president, but we all know that's not really true," he said, noting that the two major party candidates in the 2000 election came from political dynasties. "This show is going to ask whether or not anyone really can become president."
Cutler, Lassally and Roach previously developed a similar concept at HBO called "Candidate 2012," which did not go forward. That project was conceived much differently, as a straight documentary about one young political wannabe on a quest for the presidency in 2012.
FX's Reilly said his network and Cutler already were at work developing a documentary franchise when the idea of "American Candidate" came up.
"The intention is not to do a political gong show," he said. "We think we can get the audience to connect to politics, issues and the democratic process in a way they haven't been. It's a lofty goal, and we hope we can do it."
While "American Candidate" will be a reality show at heart, Cutler and FX hope the show ends up something more than just another big nonfiction hit.
"We expect it to be entertaining and engaging and provocative in the way that all good television is," Cutler said. "But it's also a show about something."
Beltway skeptics will no doubt scoff at the idea that a complete nobody could end up a serious candidate for president. Cutler, however, believes those pundits would be underestimating the power of television.
After all, Kelly Clarkson was a complete unknown until "American Idol" turned her into a household name. And Ventura became governor of Minnesota on the strength of his TV and wrestling fame.
"The winner of 'American Candidate' will be a TV star with (high name recognition)," Cutler said. "Like America itself, this project is a great experiment. We'll see how America responds."
A New Political Reality Comes to TV
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