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'PRIMETIME POLITICS' EXAMINES A LONG-RUNNING SHOW

You certainly can't accuse "Inside TV Land: Primetime Politics" (10 tonight, cable) of being long-winded.

Narrated by former "Spin City" star Barry
Bostwick, it is a fast-moving hour that looks at how television and politics have used each other for the past four decades.

From the moment the Smothers Brothers shook up their variety show genre by making subtle political statements, television would never be the same.

The brothers were fired for mixing the two, but writer-producer Norman Lear was developing a ground-breaking situation comedy, "All in the Family," where political statements were mined for laughs.

One of the clip highlights occurs early tonight, when Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) assesses the 1972 presidential race between Sen. George McGovern and President Richard Nixon.

"(People) don't like a guy who is running around like McGovern changing his mind all the time," Archie says. "They want a man like Nixon who don't change for nothing."

Substitute Kerry for McGovern and Bush for Nixon and the same line could be used today.

Baby boomers will be familiar with many signature moments in this shallow, nostalgic special.

There's the memorable time that President Nixon was persuaded to say "Sock It to Me" on "Laugh-In." Nixon looked stiff saying it, but some people credit the line for helping him win a narrow election over Hubert Humphrey.

There's the moment Gerald Ford slipped coming down an airplane ramp, giving Chevy Chase a career highlight in his stumbling imitation of the president on "Saturday Night Live."

The show also works as a trivia contest. (Answers appear at the bottom of the column):

* Who was the initial first lady to appear in a situation comedy and which one was it?

* Who was the first sitting president to read the memorable words, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night"?

* What president said "we need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons?"

* What presidential candidate had a cameo on "Cheers"?

* What vice president was constantly the punch line on "Murphy Brown"?

I'll give you the last one. It was Dan Quayle, who eventually took the fictional newscaster to task for "mocking the importance of fathers and having a child on her own and calling it another kind of lifestyle choice."

The Quayle controversy is recalled in a lengthy interview with Buffalo native Diane English, the creator of "Murphy Brown." At least it is lengthy compared to most interviews in this special.

Rob Reiner, who was a writer for the Smothers Brothers before he became Meathead on "All in the Family," is one of the best interviews. George Stephanopoulos, George Schlatter, Stephen Colbert, Howard Dean, Lily Tomlin and Bea Arthur also put their spins on how politics and television have married and used each other and how the lines between politics and entertainment have blurred.

We're at the point now that one man, John Edwards, chose "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart to announce his candidacy for president and then was facetiously reminded by the host that his show is a fake news show.

If there is anything funnier than mocking the importance of fictional fathers these days, it may be mocking the importance of real news. One thing is for sure: As entertainment, "Primetime Politics" is the real thing.

Now the answers. Betty Ford was the first lady who appeared on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." President Ford gave the "SNL" line. The first President Bush was the Waltons fan, and John Kerry made a brief appearance along with Cliff and Norm on "Cheers."

Rating: 2 1/2 stars out of 4

On a more serious note, the controversy surrounding the Sinclair Broadcast Group's "news special," "A POW Story: Politics, Pressure and the Media," didn't fuel ratings Friday night when it aired on WUTV. It averaged a 2.0 rating, starting with a 2.4 and finishing with a 1.5. Notably, the only commercials on it were for 800 numbers, along with promos for Fox shows.

Sinclair showed about five minutes of excerpts of the anti-John Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor," and interviewed the filmmaker and some of the POWs who felt betrayed when the war hero Kerry testified before a Senate committee in 1971 about atrocities committed in Vietnam.

It provided balance by showing excerpts of a pro-Kerry documentary, "Going Upriver," interviewing the filmmaker and some Vietnam veterans who defended him and dealing with the controversies surrounding President Bush's military service.

It was a pretty balanced hour, which Sinclair would have you believe was always its intention. More likely, pressure from stockholders, viewers and advertisers caused Sinclair to reconsider its original plans.

If so, it's hard to disagree with those who believe the system worked without harming the principle of free speech. The Smothers Brothers might tell you that hasn't always happened.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com