Bloomberg and Warren violated basic rule of television — Biden and Sanders the stars now

Bloomberg and Warren violated basic rule of television — Biden and Sanders the stars now
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Any presidential campaign is basically a long-running TV series. Former cast-mates Mike Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFinal debate: War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit Biden defends his health plan from Trump attacks Progressives blast Biden plan to form panel on Supreme Court reform MORE (D-Mass.) are now out of the show for many reasons, but right up there among those reasons is this: They were undone by the same basic law of television. Your character can’t switch stripes in the middle of a season. Viewers get confused and quickly change the channel.

Consistency is key for any TV role. The audience brings certain expectations with it every time it turns on the tube. They know the good guys from the bad guys from the funny guys and the serious ones. That’s why actors often get type-cast; it’s hard to spend years as the villain on a drama and then show up as the bumbling dad on a new family sitcom.

It’s harder still when viewers grow to like or understand a particular character on a show over the course of several episodes — only to have that character suddenly shift gears and behave completely different. That’s a formula for failure.


For better or worse, our political campaigns play out mostly on television. And those vital rules of consistency apply, just as on any other show.

Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, spent hundreds of millions of dollars building up his TV persona by flooding the airwaves with glossy 30-second ads. They portrayed a confident candidate with a record of accomplishment who could unblinkingly lead the charge against Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE.

But those commercials were only the coming attractions. They were, essentially, promos — quick hits to get you interested in watching the real thing. Bloomberg’s numbers rose as viewer anticipation built for the opening weekend of what was sold as a Hollywood superhero story.

Then came the debates. The Bloomberg character who showed up was nothing like the guy in the promos. As mayor of New York, charisma and inspiration were never his strong suits — but for the rest of the national audience, this was an unexpected and  irritating plot twist.

Had Bloomberg entered the race earlier, he might have been able to build a viewership. He would have been like a TV character who learns and evolves over the course of a season: the rookie cop who, 22 episodes later, is wiser and steadier. But he didn’t give himself enough time.


Warren may have had too much time. She shifted character more than once over the course of the season. Early on, she was the brilliant professor with detailed plans. By mid-season she emphasized her humble origins, and then portrayed herself as a unity candidate. Her biggest pivot came late in the season, when — in her last two debates — she took on a very different persona, one driven more by conflict than unity.

Pundits declared her the winner of both evenings — and Warren no doubt won on points in some minds. But a TV series is not a debate club; the audience at home scores favorite programs differently. While donations to her campaign grew significantly after each debate, her standing in the polls did not. Viewers were confused by the shifts in tone that were at odds with a character they thought they knew.

So here is where it all lands: Democrats are down to the two longest-running and most consistent stars of the show. They have been in other series before this — in 2016, in 2008, and earlier — but former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFacebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Trump's debate performance was too little, too late Final debate: War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit MORE (I-Vt.) have never strayed far from their basic brands, from the characters they have molded on-screen over the years, no matter the circumstances.

Their gestures and quirks, their flaws and strengths, are all familiar. Love them or not, support them or not, viewers know these characters well.  Each, in his own way, feels comfortable.

These days, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.