Rival US senators Flake and Heinrich film survival show

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US Senator Jeff Flake (left) and Senator Martin Heinrich appeared on Eru island in August 2014Image source, AP
Image caption,
Senators Jeff Flake (left) and Martin Heinrich filmed the survival show while on Congressional recess in August

Two US senators from rival political parties are taking bipartisan co-operation to a new level, starring in a reality survival show filmed on a desert island. Will this shrewd media manoeuvre spur a gridlocked Congress to stop bickering and start taking action?

Rival Survival - premiering in the US on 29 October - will show Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico enduring six days and nights together on Eru in the Marshall Islands.

Used to navigating the metaphorical shark-infested waters of Washington DC politics, the two men will encounter real life predators as they work together to stave off hunger and thirst.

As Congress' overall approval ratings sink to all-time lows ahead of the November mid-term elections, Matthew Baum, professor of global communications and public policy at Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government, says this type of spectacle was inevitable.

Image source, Office of Senator Jeff Flake
Image caption,
Republican Senator Jeff Flake represents the US state of Arizona

He says it is an effort to reach and attract a shrinking pool of "persuadables", or people who do not have a strong connection to either party.

But political polarisation and media fragmentation have made that increasingly difficult.

"There is a tacit understanding that people have to do more extreme things to get attention and to move voters," he says.

A reality shows draw a lot of less partisan and politically engaged - thus potentially movable - voters, Baum adds.

The idea of pushing media boundaries is not new, Baum says, noting former US President Bill Clinton's surprising election-era appearance playing the saxophone on the late-night Arsenio Hall Show in 1992.

"[People] went ballistic about how this was demeaning the presidency and was going to cost him the nomination," he says. "And they, frankly, had it backwards."

Republican strategist Ford O'Connell says President Barack Obama has shrewdly adopted this type of outside-the-box media approach, appearing on daytime and late-night talk shows and discussing many things other than politics.

"These days we live in an HBO, TMZ, ESPN society," he says of the entertainment television channel, a celebrity gossip website and a top sport media brand. "Politicians need to get outside of the political media echo chamber. You've got to go where the eyeballs are."

The Discovery Channel has plenty of eyeballs. Their survival shows - such as Naked and Afraid, where nude contestants battle the elements - draw big audiences.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Unclothed contestants battle for survival on Discovery Channel's popular show Naked and Afraid

Flake and Heinrich approached the network with the unusual concept several months ago, hoping to highlight cross-party co-operation.

Network spokeswoman Laurie Goldberg says she was thrilled at the prospect. She is careful to point out that the senators performed all tasks related to the show in their off-work hours, in accordance with strict Senate ethics rules.

They filmed the programme in August over their Congressional recess, and donated all compensation to charity.

What was important to both the politicians and the network, she adds, was airing the show prior to Congressional mid-term elections on 4 November.

Neither of the politicians is up for re-election then, but control of the US Senate and House of Representatives will be up for grabs.

"We wanted to make sure it was out before, and maybe we'll make a point so when the new guys come in, they'll think about it," Goldberg says.

But how can watching two grown men spear fishing together help what many consider to be a hopelessly gridlocked Congress?

"Right now, in a lot of ways, America is soured on both parties," O'Connell says. "The idea of being able to show them [working] together toward a common goal is a good thing overall."

It can also increase the pressure to co-operate, he says, and encourage more "team building exercises" across the political spectrum.

Image source, Office of Senator Martin Heinrich
Image caption,
New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich's (centre left) Democratic Party risks losing control of the Senate

O'Connell also contends that, barring any major gaffes, the move can offer positive brand recognition for both parties.

"Talking about anything other than politics is generally a plus," he says. "The fact is, if you can survive... the Pacific Islands, then you can pretty much survive anything."

But what of Flake and Heinrich's credibility with their more staid Congressional cohorts?

"These guys' reputations with their colleagues are going to turn on what they do in the Senate, not what they do in their private lives," Baum says. "This isn't a scandal, it's just kowtowing to cotemporary media mores."