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Friday, March 20, 2009

Obama's appearance on Leno a ratings success

The "Special Olympics" wisecrack aside -- a gutterball in any context -- President Obama's appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" was a ratings victory. And not just in the swing states.

Overnight ratings for Leno's show skyrocketed with one in four TVs tuned into this historic interview. Now, in full disclosure, I wasn't one of those televisions (there's a little something called sleep and March Madness that takes precedence in my world), but I caught the replay on this morning.

Unlike Obama's previous appearances on late night TV as a candidate, there's a bit more formality and rigidity to what he says and how he says it now that's he's President. (And rightly so -- somehow I don't think we want our President riffing with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog). A few of the Commander-in-Chief's opening lines -- obviously rehearsed -- played well with the partisan crowd ("It’s a little bit like American Idol but everyone's Simon Cowell"). But most of Leno's interview was serious, a chance for the President to talk about the current economic crisis and the controversies over taxpayer-funded bonuses at everyone's favorite insurance company AIG.

Obama offered up a few lighter observations on life in the White House, including more on the promised First Dog and a predictable story involving Sasha and Malia. But as pointed out by Time magazine, Obama's isn't a ha-ha funny guy and his sarcasm tends to comes off a little bland on live television. Still, it was in a lighter moment -- when Leno asked him about his dismal bowling abilities -- that Obama offered up a Joe Biden-esque gaffe about "Special Olympics" that's sure to dominate the cable airwaves for the next two days. It was an unfortunate moment in Presidential history, but, hey, it's not like he vomited on Leno, right? Obama has since apologized, but rest assured the talking heads on TV and radio will not let this soundbite die.

We're not used to seeing our Presidents on late night TV, unless they're a punchline for a joke, so there's not much to compare Obama's appearance to. In spite of the poorly timed joke -- hopefully an unscripted moment -- if the ratings are any indicator, then his effort to reach out to the greater public was a success. Could he have done the same thing in a presidential press conference? Probably, but chances are, the American public would likely have tuned into something else.

Check out the entire interview and let us know what you think:

--Malavika Jagannathan,

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