Where does news end and entertainment begin? The answer is blurry, but Showtime has found a way to monetize the question.
Last Sunday, April 15, Showtime’s political documentary “news as entertainment” series, aptly named “The Circus,” started its third season. The second episode of the half-hour hit show airs this Sunday and is scheduled weekly until May 26.
The “Circus” name itself is a stroke of marketing genius, because in the Age of Trump, the word “circus” is synonymous with the daily political machinations that captivate the Washington media.
As an example of President Trump’s profound chaotic influence on politics and the news cycle, back in 2015 when “The Circus” was searching for a name, the producers argued against calling the show, “The Circus,” according to David Nevins, president and CEO of Showtime Networks. After the show became a hit, in a June 2016 email Nevins told me:
“When we first started, I was arguing to call the show ‘The Circus,’ but the producers had concerns that it might be perceived as disrespectful to the electoral process. No one could have known how prescient that title ended up becoming.”
It’s a bit quaint now to think that producers once had concerns about anything being disrespectful to the electoral process.
“The Circus” can hardly keep up with the dramatic 24/7 news cycle while Trump directs all the chaos from center stage. Trying to film and produce a half-hour weekly show that is newsworthy, timely, captivating, informative, and entertaining to a Showtime audience is a daunting task for “Circus” producers, Mark McKinnon, John Heilemann and Alex Wagner who also star in the show. (For the third season, Wagner of CBS News, replaced political pundit Mark Halperin, who was dropped by Showtime after allegations of sexual harassment ten years ago at ABC news.)
With every intention of writing an accurate preview of this Sunday’s “Circus” episode, I was wired into the supersonic pace of the production experience of “The Circus” as demonstrated by this email from Mark McKinnon: “You might mention as a footnote, that due to massive amount of news that Trump makes every week, we always have to cut scenes we have filmed. So, people you list that we talked to this week will not necessarily make final cut.”
The show is edited throughout the week in New York City by Left/Right Productions. With late-breaking news always happening in the current political environment, editing runs all night Saturday into early Sunday morning, just hours before it airs at 8 p.m.
Every “Circus” episode has a title theme that attempts to wrap the news week into a cohesive, entertaining package geared to Showtime’s paying audience. (Cost is $12 a month on my cable system.)
This Sunday’s title theme is “Too Many Lawyers.” McKinnon told me, “This week, we are both digging deep and pulling back the lens so that viewers have a complete overview and can better understand the meaning and potential consequences of the investigations swirling around this presidency. We talked to a parade of lawyers on both sides of the aisle, including Alan Dershowitz, Michael Avenatti (Stormy Daniels’ attorney), Joe diGenova, and Sally Yates (the former acting attorney general fired by President Trump).”
On Monday, the crew of “The Circus” was given exclusive access to accompany Stormy Daniels’ lawyer around New York City for the entire day. (Here is an uncensored bonus clip of John Heilemann with Avenatti.)
“The Circus” was also present at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago press conference Wednesday night with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. That means “Circus” viewers will be treated to scenes of Trump’s palatial oceanfront estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
Earlier on Wednesday, McKinnon interviewed longtime Trump associate Roger Stone at his home in Ft. Lauderdale. Stone, provocative as usual, mentioned that he believed President Trump would run for reelection even if impeachment proceedings were ongoing and that Trump would turn impeachment into a campaign advantage.
With all the access and experience of the three host producers, how influential is “The Circus”? The show has been fully embraced by the cable news media. Heilemann and McKinnon preview “Circus” clips on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” McKinnon is a regular guest on Don Lemon’s CNN show promoting “The Circus” and previewing clips. McKinnon also appears on Martha MacCallum’s Fox News Channel show chatting up “The Circus” as well as weekly on the “Brian Kilmeade Show” on Fox Radio.
But most important, does the man who virtually, single-handedly, created the proverbial “high wire act without a net” political circus atmosphere, actually watch “The Circus”?
McKinnon, who created the concept of “The Circus,” answered: “Watch the show? He’s the Ringmaster!”
Cross-posted at The Washington Examiner.