Analysis: Trump’s ‘reality TV presidency’ gets a new, more produced look with Biden TV


While Trump continued to emphasize in-person events, speaking to crowds and rallies, Biden used TV to get out his message. Derided by the former president’s supporters for running a campaign from his basement, the strategy actually mirrored the way sports has continued with limited or no attendance, or talk-show hosts adapted from boisterous studio audiences to speaking directly to the camera and more intimate remote interviews.

The peak of the Biden campaign’s production savvy emerged during the Democratic National Convention, mounted as a remote affair and hosted each night by a different celebrity. The flag-waving videos and heartwarming moments were worthy of the packages that NBC produces for the Olympics every other year.

A similar approach could be seen this week in efforts to compensate for the lack of inaugural crowds, beginning with the memorial for Covid-19 victims, during a somber outdoor ceremony that featured Yolanda Adams singing “Hallelujah.” The moment moved MSNBC contributors who were watching to tears.

Carefully cast with the likes of Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez in supporting roles, the inauguration is also being commemorated with a primetime special hosted by Tom Hanks, reflecting the way the Biden team leveraged the celebrities that support him, adding star power to the “show.”

For decades, television has represented the defining medium in how politicians communicate with their constituents, so in a sense, this is nothing new. The wrinkle introduced since coronavirus became a threat has been the need to avoid mass gatherings, at least among those who practiced social distancing and followed the scientific advice.

The other thing about TV in general — and reality TV in particular — is that it is very, very good at making the audience see and experience what it wants them to see. Editing is used to shape reality into specific storylines, and create illusions as simple as the audiences inserted into shows like Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” which has used old footage of appreciative fans to maintain a sense of excitement, even as the participants perform in a near-empty venue.

Trump’s Covid response — or lack thereof, in the eyes of his critics — was tailored to television, as his televised briefings made clear. But as he campaigned, he still relied on drawing energy from the familiar power of big in-person events.

By contrast, Biden’s commitment to following the guidelines required more creativity, seeking to convey emotional beats without the traditional cues of cheering audiences.

Until the Covid threat subsides, that appears to be the formula for the Biden presidency, creating imagery not for those in attendance but to be seen and absorbed through the safety and distance of TV.

With the Washington Monument in the background, President-elect Joe Biden with his wife Jill Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris with her husband Doug Emhoff listen as Yolanda Adams sings "Hallelujah" during a Covid-19 memorial on Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As has happened with sports, award shows and other live events, the presentation loses something under those rules, and it means more planning and tinkering from a production standpoint. In a way, though, those limitations also provide the producers more control over the finished product and how the message is delivered to the end consumers at home.

There will be no arguments about crowd size for this inauguration, as Biden spoke to an emptied National Mall. Yet that space was meticulously populated by American flags, another striking visual caught only when the camera panned out.

As for the address itself, the close-ups of the new president and vice president looked like any other inaugural, with TV as the familiar conduit to the nation. With that, what was sometimes called “The Trump Show” has been recast, with a new star speaking directly to all those people — the “folks,” as Biden put it — out there on the other side of the screen.

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