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Sarah Palin’s new niche? Reality TV

Sarah Palin’s participation in a new television show about her life in Alaska has political commentators scratching their heads. Is reality television stardom compatible with presidential aspirations?


She’s been a small-town mayor and a half-term governor, an unlikely vice presidential candidate and self-proclaimed “hockey mom”, a feisty political commentator and a Twitter queen.

Now, prominent Republican figure Sarah Palin can add “reality TV star” to her CV. “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”, a programme that follows Palin and her family as they explore the great outdoors of their vast, snowy, sparsely populated state, premiered this week on televisions across America. The show’s hour-long debut (the first of eight scheduled episodes) pulled in nearly five million viewers, setting a new record for cable TV channel TLC (The Learning Channel).

“Sarah Palin’s Alaska” has what magazine Entertainment Weekly called “careful editing for the maximum positive representation”. But Palin’s participation has political commentators scratching their heads: is reality TV stardom compatible with presidential ambitions?

Confounding the experts

The programme is short on politics and heavy on nature, as Palin, her husband Todd, and their five children hike, hunt and fish their way around the Alaskan wilderness. There are also glimpses into the family’s home life, with the state’s most famous working mum juggling parenting with a burgeoning career as a political pundit.

Many Washington insiders seem baffled by Palin’s decision to film such a show. There is widespread speculation that she is eyeing a 2012 presidential run, and Palin herself cryptically said in September that she would aim for the White House “if nobody else were to step up.” Meanwhile, her upcoming speaking schedule includes stops in crucial “swing” states like Iowa and Ohio. In an interview with British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, Republican strategist Karl Rove said, “Appearing on your own reality show…I am not certain how that fits in the American calculus of 'that helps me see you in the Oval Office’.”

There is agreement on the other side of the political aisle. “If she’s serious about running for president, she needs to be hitting the books and improving her intellectual heft”, said Ari Berman, author of “Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics”, in an interview with “But instead she’s on a reality TV show”.

Still, stellar ratings and early press write-ups suggest that Palin’s image could get a boost from the programme. In one of the most buzzed-about moments from the first episode, Palin panics while climbing along a steep and icy mountain slope. “Oh gosh, I’m so scared... help me Lord”, she exclaims before gathering her bearings and continuing to the top. Entertainment Weekly’s TV critic said the scene showed “Sarah at her most winning”.

Other frequently cited bits revolve around Sarah’s relationship with her kids. At one point, Palin orders a male friend of teenage daughter Willow’s to come downstairs after he sneaks up to her room. Later in the episode, Palin is the object of some mild teasing from nine-year-old daughter Piper, who declares that her mother is “addicted to the BlackBerry”. These clips seem intended to endear viewers to Palin as a woman dealing with everyday challenges both big and small. In an otherwise mixed review, The New York Times' television critic acknowledged that “the programme highlights her physical bravery, but the series existence points to a different kind of courage: Ms. Palin is not afraid to be herself”.

‘The reality show hurts her’

That image of a folksy, straight-talking woman of the people is one that Palin has been able to cultivate, despite her wealth (she is said to be earning 250,000 dollars per episode of her new show). Though she remains an extremely polarising figure - a Gallup poll published last Friday showed Palin’s unpopularity rating hitting a new high of 52 percent - she has a passionate following, particularly amongst conservative voters. Recent Republican primary surveys show her leading potential presidential rivals in the key states of Texas, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Maine.

Not everyone is convinced. While author Ari Berman recognises that “it’s possible the show makes her more sympathetic to people”, he also noted that in order to advance her career as a politician and not just a personality “she needs to be regarded as a serious figure and to expand her base, and in that sense the reality show hurts her”. Indeed, the more politically charged parts of the first episode of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” are unlikely to convert non-believers to her cause; when husband Todd builds a fence to obstruct a nosy journalist neighbour’s view, Palin quips, “This is what we need to do to protect our nation’s borders”.

But in perhaps what will be remembered as the show’s most revealing moment, Palin casts doubt on whether she even wishes to pursue higher office. "I'd rather be doing this than in some stuffy old political office," she says, gesturing toward the green expanses around her. "I'd rather be out here being free."

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