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NBC’s Hillary Clinton Miniseries: A (Possibly Unwanted) Political Gift

The same network that employs Donald Trump is making a miniseries about the possible Presidential frontrunner. In both cases, the decision is more about money than politics.

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Matt Rourke / AP

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the Women in Public Service Project leadership symposium at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pa, on July 9, 2013.

At the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles (I’ll be going out for a few days later in the week), NBC on Saturday announced that it that it was putting much of its future ratings hopes in “events”–scripted, one-off dramas that used to be called “miniseries” and are presumably¬†preferable to the event of no one watching NBC.

Network head Robert Greenblatt announced several such plans–remakes of Rosemary’s Baby and The Tommyknockers, and Plymouth (about the Pilgrims, not the car company)–along with the previous plan to air the sequel to History Channel’s The Bible. (May I suggest The Bible 2: 2 New 2 Testament.) But the biggest head-turner was signing Diane Lane to star in a mini event about the life of Hillary Clinton. As in very likely 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Should a broadcast network, programming on the public airwaves, be airing a laudatory drama about a potential presidential frontrunner? Of course not. But there’s no way of knowing–beyond the inevitable partisan rush to judgment–whether the Hillary miniseries will be laudatory, because it doesn’t exist yet except as an idea.

Clinton herself has understandably not given her blessing to the show, which could easily end up focusing on things the former Secretary of State would rather not call attention to. Among the few things we know about it is that it will begin in 1998, and you don’t need a degree in history to realize that means it will spotlight the impeachment trial following Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. And while that still leaves plenty of time for her political career in the Senate and White House, that span could also re-open wounds from what was, at least for a while, a badly divisive primary fight with Barack Obama in 2008.

Maybe making a show with Clinton played by a movie actress is inherently aggrandizing; on the other hand, USA essentially did a fictionalized version of that in Political Animals with Sigourney Weaver last year, and that show didn’t exactly catch fire. Still, I have to wonder if NBC, anticipating inevitable political criticism, pointedly waited until after it picked up the followup to Mark Burnett’s hit Bible miniseries.¬†(I hate to imply that a miniseries about Clinton can only interest liberals and that the audience for The Bible is inherently conservative; those are gross generalizations. On the other hand, “gross generalization” is probably the closest synonym for “ratings” that there is.)

If I had to guess, I’d bet that any broadcast-network drama about a current viable politician will end up even-handed to the point of blandness. A show like this is more effective, more engaging and alive, if it has a point of view–not a political platform necessarily, but a theory of the politician and her personality. HBO’s political series do that (for better or worse; I wasn’t a fan of the Sarah Palin caricature of Game Change).

I doubt NBC’s will, and yet it will probably draw huge amounts of flak regardless–and the network can blame itself, at least in part, for its ill-advised decision to hire Chelsea Clinton as a correspondent. If you don’t want to be seen as partial to politicians, maybe don’t hire their kids as celebrity journalists? (See also NBC and Jenna Bush Hager.)

That’s fine for NBC, since attention means ratings. As someone who follows networks, the most quaint thing about the claim that networks program primetime for political ends is that it assumes these companies are far more altruistic than they actually are. NBC doesn’t employ birther / reality-TV host Donald Trump because it wants to publicize its platform of crankery. It just doesn’t care one way or another–like any broadcast network, it cares about making money, and to that end, it needs a Hillary Clinton miniseries way more than Hillary does.

For Clinton, it’s probably a greater risk than she really needs, as she doesn’t exactly need the name recognition now. But NBC doesn’t need permission, and as Greenblatt pointed out at TCA, it shouldn’t face any legal equal-time problems, since Clinton isn’t an official candidate for anything, and won’t be for some time.

If Clinton wants to keep the project from going forward, in other words, the best way would be for her to run for president–now.