Sarah Palin's slick, new reality show, premiering this Sunday night, may qualify as the earliest, most expensive presidential campaign ad ever made.
Produced by the godfather of reality TV, Mark Burnett, and costing several million dollars, ' Sarah Palin's Alaska' is nominally an educational portrait of the largest U.S. state. But the real star, of course, is the former governor herself—bathed in that soft Alaskan light as she fishes salmon, goes ice trekking, and bakes cupcakes for her kids.
While doing so, she gets to allude to her political platform in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. She jokes about 'mama grizzlies' during a fishing trip and a chat about the 14-foot fence she has built to keep out a nosy neighbor becomes a riff on immigration control. And she never has to face a question that she doesn't like.
"It's definitely one big cable buy," said Terry Sullivan, a GOP strategist. "When Governor Romney was talking about running for president, he had sent out a DVD where he was sledding in Utah with the family, talking about whether he would run or not, and everybody was baking cookies and hanging out. The difference is she has a production company willing to foot the bill for it."
The eight-episode show on TLC is produced by Burnett, the reality TV pioneer who, as creator of ' Survivor,' not only established reality as a mass phenomenon but set the standard for stunning photography and high production values in the genre.
In an interview on Wednesday, Burnett said he didn't set out to make a show with a political point of view. The show "is completely non-political," said Burnett. "It's absolutely not trying to show one thing or the other. She is showing everything." Asked if he himself would vote for her, however, Burnett demurred. "I honestly am so disinterested in politics. I'd rather be riding my bike."
Such protestations notwithstanding, Palin supporters hope that seeing the former governor relaxed in her natural habitat may broaden her electoral appeal, helping her build a stronger base in advance of a possible presidential run in 2012. Burnett, too, hopes for a wide audience, although—presumably - for reasons of ratings.
The show, Burnett believes, might find three different types of viewers: ardent Palin fans, fervent Palin foes, "and there is another group of people totally in the middle. And I think open-minded people in the middle will find all the Palins very engaging, a lot of fun, and will enjoy the series."
"A lot of people only saw the Katie Couric or Tina Fey sides of Palin. They didn't see what other people saw in her: the authentic mother of five who lives in Alaska."
What has made some Palin supporters even more excited than the prospect that her reality show might expose her to a untapped demographic is her portrayal, harking back to an earlier, softer, pre-Tea Party Palin. There she is, not tweeting or posting anti-Obama blasts on Facebook, but dog mushing and caribou hunting, all the time gushingly folksy. ("Holy jeeze!" she says. And "Oh my Gosh!" There is even a "Don't retreat, just reload.")
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• Inside Palin’s Life in Alaska "The TV show is going to allow her to reestablish herself with the general public because—right now—non-Republicans will remember her for the mistakes that were made in the 2008 campaign, and the year following that election," said a former aide, who worked for the John McCain - Sarah Palin ticket in the last presidential election. "A lot of people only saw the Katie Couric or Tina Fey sides of Palin. They didn't see what other people saw in her: the authentic mother of five who lives in Alaska, who came from nothing, lived out the American dream, who was a hunter, had a husband who was a snow machine racer—that authenticity is what people will love about her."
Although Burnett stressed the apolitical nature of the show, he acknowledged that the series might change some peoples' minds about Palin.
"Many people have seen this who initially said, 'I'm not sure I agree with Sarah Palin,' but have looked at it said, 'Wow, she seems like a lot of fun.' She laughs at herself a lot, and I think that's the essence of it," said Burnett. "Probably a lot of people haven't seen that and are just used to seeing her on stage, or on Fox News, or at book events or speeches. And that's part of her. But this huge other part you haven't seen is her at home, and what they do outdoorsy as a family."
Dave Dittman, a Republican pollster who's known Palin for years, said the show "presents a side of her that's not well known." Besides, he said, "she can make money at it, enjoy it [and] it highlights the Alaska that she loves."
TLC—short for The Learning Channel, and in the cluster of Discovery Networks—is reportedly paying around $1.2 million per episode for the show, having won a bidding war. Palin is likely to be getting a significant portion of that. But Burnett dismissed that figure, saying that the number "is way high."
In addition to a slick—and humorous—marketing campaign, which includes the tagline –"I can see Sarah Palin's Alaska from my Living Room," TLC is launching an interactive website—Spalaska—that will have five blogs, including one titled " Not Taking Sides", which according to its online PR material, will "support, and in some cases facilitate, non-political political conversations" about the show.
"She is running for president and this is a season-long bio ad, free of charge," said the former aide about the reality series. "It's one of the most unconventional, but brilliant things. And it shows how politically smart and savvy she actually is."
Karl Rove might disagree. Recently, the GOP force questioned whether Palin has the required "gravitas" to run for president. "With all due candor, appearing on your own reality show on the Discovery Channel, I am not certain how that fits in the American calculus of 'that helps me see you in the Oval Office,'" he told the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.
Palin was quick to shoot back, in an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News. "Wasn't Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn't he in Bedtimes for Bonzo, bozo or something?" she asked. "Now look-it. I'm not in a reality show. I have eight episodes documenting Alaska's resources, what it is that we can contribute to the rest of U.S. to economically and physically secure our union, and my family comes along for the ride because I am family, family is us, and my family comes along on the ride to document these eight episodes for The Learning Channel."
• The Sarah Palin Reality Show Drinking GameThe show takes viewers on different trips around the wilds of Alaska, using bush planes, dog sleighs, and a tour bus. On several occasions, Palin finds inspiration in nature to espouse on her political points and policy positions such as when she discusses the tall fence that she and Todd has put up to shield themselves from the journalist Joe McGinniss, who moved next door while working on a Palin book. The wall, she suggested, is a good lesson on border security. "I thought that was a good example, what we just did. Others could look at it and say, 'Oh, this is what we need to do to secure our nation's border."
Palin's parents, Chuck and Sally Heath, make cameos in several episodes, including the first one when their daughter takes a lesson to prepare for a climb on Mount McKinley. In an interview at their home in Alaska in September, Heath said having a TV crew document their life in Alaska was a good experience, speaking warmly of the invading "city people" with their cameras.
"I've had a good time with them, just wonderful people all of them," he said. "None of them hunt and fish. [I thought] we're not going to have anything in common, but everything turned out beautifully."
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.