Wolffe: Behind Obama's Must-See TV

The format is being kept tightly under wraps. But the producer's past work offers some clues about what promises to be a most unusual political TV show.

The Obama campaign is spending millions of dollars on 30 minutes of prime time next week in what amounts to a big gamble for a presidential candidate with a decent lead in the polls so close to Election Day. The Obama show, airing on the major broadcast networks (NBC, CBS and Fox are confirmed; ABC is still in talks) and three cable news networks, will be the last big set piece of the extraordinary 2008 presidential campaign. One senior source close to the campaign puts the price tag in the $6 million range—which would make it the most expensive single political ad ever.

Broadcasts like the Oct. 29 infomercial were not uncommon in the 1960s. But the prohibitive cost has kept candidates from pursuing this path in recent years. Hillary Clinton bought a block of time on the Lifetime cable network during the primaries this year. But the tactic hasn't been used on network television since Ross Perot aired a memorable mix of charts and folksy catchphrases back in 1992.

The Perot show was a static affair, with the candidate perched behind a desk, in front of a bookshelf, facing the camera. The Obama camp has not yet tipped its hand about how its production will be staged. But judging from the credentials of producer Mark Putnam, it will be a much more polished affair.

Putnam has produced more than 1,000 TV ads for Democratic candidates across the country, including some of the most striking spots broadcast over the last two cycles. His work for Gov. Bill Richardson's re-election campaign in New Mexico in 2006 and 2007 was widely praised and politically effective, not least for their use of humor. One spot showed Richardson in a Western movie, wearing a sheriff's badge and often riding on horseback. The ad touted his record of shuttering crystal-meth labs as the governor strode into a saloon to order a glass of milk. It ended with a line about movie production in New Mexico, with the governor riding off into the sunset. "Next time," Richardson said, "let's make a space movie."

Putnam also handled Richardson's ads in this year's Democratic presidential primaries. They were among the most distinctive and talked about of the year—at least until Hillary Clinton's camp began airing the infamous 3 a.m.-phone-call spots (well, OK, those Mike Gravel rock-in-the-pond numbers were pretty great, too). Putnam's product was credited with moving Richardson's numbers in Iowa substantially. Two of the ads featured mock job interviews with a lazy, sandwich-eating interrogator who rattled off Richardson's impressive foreign-policy resume, only to ask at the end: "So what makes you think you can be president?" Richardson looks wryly at the camera and says nothing.

More recently, Putnam produced Michelle Obama's bio video at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The video was narrated by Michelle's mother, Marian Robinson, and sought to portray Michelle's family and community work in often intimate ways—ending with an emotional emphasis on Michelle's late father. "I hope America gets to know the girl we raised and the woman she became, because she's the most remarkable person I know," her mother says at the end of the video. "I wish my husband could see this day. But every day I get to see a piece of him in her, and for that I am so proud and so blessed."

Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Putnam has a rare item on his resume for a political consultant: he graduated from Brown with a degree in molecular biology. But he decided to focus on a much less precise science out of college, heading to work for Joe Biden's failed 1988 presidential campaign. He moved into political-media production not long after and kept his hand in presidential politics, serving as chief speechwriter to Dick Gephardt's White House campaign in 2004.

"He's a very, very good writer and producer," says Peter Fenn, the Democratic strategist who worked with him through the late 1980s and early 1990s. "He's very creative and a real perfectionist when it comes to his ads. He takes real pride in them. There are a lot of folks who do cookie-cutter things and churn them out. Not Mark." (Senior Obama campaign staff declined to comment on the prime-time ad or Putnam's work, and they did not make Putnam available to discuss it.)

Friends credit Putnam for his creativity. "He's very strong on the concept side, [as he demonstrated in] the Richardson ads," said one longtime friend, who requested anonymity speaking on the subject. "And secondly, he understands this is an emotional medium. He is excellent at producing affective material."

The friend cautions that next week's Obama spot won't be an ideal showcase for Putnam's creative talents. There will be a lot of hands in the project—including campaign manager David Plouffe, chief strategist David Axelrod and senior advisers Robert Gibbs and Anita Dunn. The team has been considering a classic town-hall format and weighing a mix of video and new original material, as well.

And how is the McCain planning to counterprogram? The Republican's decision to take public financing leaves him hard-pressed to muster the money to match Obama's act; campaign aides says they have no plans to do a similar broadcast of their own at the moment. So McCain is trying to inoculate against the impact of the infomercial, casting it as one more sign of an overconfident Democratic contender rushing to measure the White House drapes. "He'll be addressing the nation soon," McCain told a crowd in New Hampshire on Wednesday. "He's got another of those big stadium spectacles in the works. But acting like the election is over won't let him take away your chance to have the final say in this election."

Join the Discussion