Yesterday I sat down with a man named Brian Reich in a luxurious sun-streaked conference room he was borrowing for the afternoon from some old friends at the Glover Park Group and participated in a lengthy conversation about the new TLC show “Sarah Palin‘s Alaska” during which he used the word “conversation” many, many times.
“We launched four blogs and a twice-weekly podcast” devoted to exploring various themes addressed in the eight-episode television event, he explained, “because we know there are a lot of different conversations that people are going to be having about this show.” A few minutes later, he clarified: “We launched four blogs and a podcast to make it as easy as possible to engage and have those conversations.” Neither an employee of TLC nor the show’s famous mastermind producer Mark Burnett, Reich runs a little media consultancy called “little m media” and launched his career working for Al Gore‘s 2000 presidential campaign (which is, incidentally, how he came to know Joe Lockhart and Michael Feldman, the Glover Park principals who so graciously offered up the conference room.) But his role in promoting Palin’s show is less dependent on his political connections, he emphasized, than his experience engaging in those silent “conversations” with audiences across the array of new social media platforms that owe their existences to the internet his old boss invented. “I’d like to think I’m here because of TLC’s commitment to having these focused conversations”, which is to say that: “TLC intentionally committed to building a quasi-independent team, because of all the conversations we wanted to sustain.”
Talk turned briefly to a few different subjects throughout the course of the conversation. When he told me he lived on the Upper West Side and I asked about his Boston area code, he noted that this was often a topic of his introductory conversations with journalists. “If I could get a 212 area code, believe me, I’d have changed it already,” he explained. “But who wants a 347? You could be in Florida for all the numbers “347” mean to people. I have no interest in that.”
Another conversation of no interest whatsoever to Reich, according to Reich: whether Palin will be running for President in 2012. “I would not have any reason to speculate on that,” he stated emphatically at another point. (I had not invited him to.) I asked about his official biography, which states that in addition to his responsibility over the Sarah Palin’s Alaska content he is currently at work authoring a book called Shift & Resent: How Organizations Need to Re-Think Serious Issues in the Digital Age. How does one properly convey the seriousness of serious issues in an era of 140-character plot summaries, I asked wondered. “Oh I don’t think you should,” he responded immediately. “I think serious issues are complex. The effort to oversimplify and decomplexify serious issues is, I think, a mistake. You need to move in incremental steps…”
And then somehow the topic of conversation again turned back to the topic of conversations. “I said if you want to have a conversation, we need to be giving people something to talk about,” he recalled of his initial contacts with the publicity department at TLC. And wisely, according to Reich, the network saw that “the only way we could have a credible conversation in terms of social media was by engaging all the different types of people who are going to be interested in this show.”
I will confess to conforming to the profile of one of those types, having received earlier that morning a forwarded email from my boss indicating that Reich was specifically hoping to “reach out” to “progressive bloggers.” How very clever of the TLC folks, I had thought, to exploit our symbiotic relationship with the first family of Wasilla to mutually audience-enhancing ends!
Alas, not all progressives apparently felt the same way. I asked which left-leaning bloggers had interviewed him already. “Well, Politico and the Hotline,” he said, and paused to think for awhile before mentioning that he’d been quoted “extensively” in a post on the National Review. “Oh, and Huffington Post!” he added, before admitting that the reception to “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” among certain denizens of the of the progressive population had been a bit on the tundran side. “Don’t quote me on this but,” Reich said, so I will paraphrase instead: one liberal blogger in New York told him he would rather kill himself in a terribly unpleasant way than promote Sarah Palin in any way.
“A lot of the progressive and liberals I’ve talked to are less interested in providing coverage…” he said, “The conversations we’re having with them are more intended to make them understand why they should watch.” And we should watch, for starters, because the show promises to be a “unique cultural experience” that represents the “merging and overlap of a lot of different trends and conversations.”
Reich explained that his team had “tried to break the show down into as many little pieces as possible,” and emerged with “many different reasons a progressive might be interested in the show.” Most conspicuously, “the environment and the outdoors, are heavily, heavily represented and beautifully displayed.” But before that hypothetical conversation could begin to flirt with “conservation” Reich changed the subject to more domestic concerns.
“No matter what you do in your day job, when you come home you’re much, much more than whatever label would be used to describe your political affiliate. So forget the news for a moment, because the show is genuinely not political, it’s about much much more than that. So that if you’re a mom. Or if you’re a hunter…or if you like rock climbing, or if you eat fish, or if you have siblings.…you can relate to it on all those different levels and layers.”
By way of example(?), he cited a scene in one of the episodes in which Piper Palin addresses her distracted mother as “Sarah” to get her attention. “That opens ups a whole vibrant conversation within the realm of parenting in terms of how you interact with your children,” Reich explained, clasping his hands. “Now if you don’t have kids”—Reich has two—”you might not even think to have that conversation.” But many, many members of American television audiences happen to have that particular thing in common with Sarah and Todd Palin. “My personal view is that it’s better to be a part of big conversations than to just turn away and pretend like they aren’t happening at all,” he said. “The more people who are involved in this conversation, the better.”