Obama's TV Diet: HBO, Little News

President Barack Obama can’t stand to be without his “Entourage.”

Call it a guilty pleasure, or maybe it just rings familiar to him. The HBO series about an aspiring actor features a fast-talking agent named Ari, based on the real-life brother of Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

For less R-rated fare, he tunes into “Hannah Montana” or “SpongeBob SquarePants” in the White House with his daughters. Aides said he would have watched Monday night’s NCAA championship on TiVo on his way home from Iraq Tuesday night.

Jon Stewart’s smackdown of CNBC’s Jim Cramer? Obama was eager to see it. But when it comes to the real news, and not the fake kind, Obama takes a pass — rarely ever tuning into 24-hour cable chatter or replays of his own performances.

“We usually tell him how we think he did,” said longtime friend Valerie Jarrett.

In some ways, it’s a TV diet that doesn’t seem so different than many American men’s, featuring a heavy dose of sports, including that staple of the channel-surfing set, ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

But some of Obama’s choices definitely have an edgier bent — such as the HBO drama “The Wire.” His favorite character is Omar, a gay stickup artist who steals from drug pushers to give to the poor. (“That’s not an endorsement. He’s not my favorite person, but he’s a fascinating character,” Obama said last year.)

“When you hear he likes ‘Entourage,’ you have to go, ‘That figures,’” said Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. “Anything Obama does is cool by definition. He’s the Internet president, he’s the BlackBerry president, and now, I suppose, he could be called the HBO president.” Obama likes “Entourage” so much he even rearranged his campaign schedule not to miss an episode.

“We would talk about ‘Entourage’ all the time,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

“A couple of times during the campaign, we would have these Sunday night calls at the same time as ‘Entourage,’” Gibbs recalled. “I remember one time I e-mailed him because the call was scheduled for the last 15 minutes of ‘Entourage’ and I said, ‘Just be late and we can just watch “Entourage” and still get on and do the call.’”

“And it worked,” Gibbs continued, laughing. “We got to see ‘Entourage.’”

And of course, with Obama, there is basketball — NBA and NCAA games and lots of ESPN.

“Sports, sports and more sports,” Jarrett said of Obama. “On the campaign trail, as soon as we would get on the bus, the first thing he would do is turn the channel to sports channels.”

When he has a few moments, Obama is known to go searching for highlights of basketball games on “SportsCenter,” a show he has watched religiously for years. “I remember sitting in a hotel lobby with him when he was running for the Senate and watching ‘SportsCenter’ in silence,” said Michael Strautmanis, a senior White House aide.

But when you’re the president, you don’t just watch TV — you are TV. ESPN hosted Obama for a show called “Barack-etology,” in which he unveiled his March Madness college basketball picks.

And he’s got the ultimate man-cave — Air Force One. Strautmanis said he and Obama watched an NCAA basketball game on Air Force One last month as they traveled back from California on a late-night flight.

Seated in the office on the plane just hours after taping “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” Obama was focused on the game, analyzing the team’s every move.

“When he’s watching the game, he’s watching the game,” Strautmanis said. “We’re not talking about work or politics.” Obama’s diagnosis: The losing team should have played half-court defense.

But he steers away from the news — when you are one of the biggest stories in the world, with daily economic and national security briefings, maybe it’s sort of been there, done that.

Although many TVs in the West Wing are tuned to MSNBC, aides say Obama hardly ever watches news programs, preferring to “read the news,” as one aide put it. And he never watches reruns of his own speeches or news conferences, aides say.

“Sometimes we’ll show him like a YouTube clip or something off a website itself, and he gets a kick out of that,” Gibbs said.

Sometimes he’ll even tune in to watch Gibbs’ briefings. Gibbs has a photograph of Obama watching his first briefing on a small television — not a flat screen — in the White House residence.

Naturally, the first couple is no different than most. “Sports would not be her first pick,” Jarrett said of Michelle Obama. She prefers “comedies and positive shows. Nothing sad or depressing.”

But forget the tube. Lately, it seems, the first family has taken advantage of one particular White House perk: the movie theater.

Recently the Obamas have seen both “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Wrestler,” Jarrett said. They can request movies from the Motion Picture Association of America.

So if you can judge a man by what he watches, what does Obama’s channel-surfing say about him?

It’s hard to resist the art-imitates-life aspect of “Entourage” — that Obama is drawn to a show about an upstart young actor chasing an improbable dream, surrounded by his closest friends from his hometown and a fast-talking, foul-mouthed guide to his new city. Sound familiar?

“I’m sure he can relate on some level to the premise of these guys coming to Hollywood to do what they want to do,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University. “And he has a certain confidence about him, kind of like the lead character in the show.”

But, he quipped, Obama’s “team probably isn’t as exciting.”

Overall, Obama’s viewing preferences suggest a “cool, hip president who is in the know,” Zelizer said. “On the one hand, he’s this regular guy who likes basketball. On the other hand, he likes some of the sizzle that ‘Entourage’ captures.”

Sports were a staple in the elder and younger Bush White Houses, particular “SportsCenter” or baseball games. Bill Clinton was a sports fan, too. Since leaving office, Clinton has confessed a love for “Grey’s Anatomy,” “24” and “Boston Legal.”

Ronald Reagan once said that his favorite TV show was “Family Ties,” whose main character, played by Michael J. Fox, was a die-hard Republican.

And George H.W. Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle, singled out the show “Murphy Brown” after the title character, played by Candice Bergen, had a baby as a single mom.

Obama’s not launching any culture wars over TV these days, and, in fact, uses it to show off his pop-culture cool.

At a recent town hall in California, Obama joked with one man in the crowd who asked him a question. “Everybody likes you, man,” he told the man as the crowd cheered. Then he turned to the crowd and asked, “What is he on, like, ‘Gossip Girl’ or something? ... I didn’t recognize him, but maybe. Is he a movie star?”

After the “Gossip Girl” mention, Internet users posted it on YouTube exclaiming, “President Obama watches ‘Gossip Girl’!”

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