Burning Question: How Michelle Obama Became May Sweeps Secret Weapon

Leslie Gornstein
Yahoo TV
April 24, 2014

From tonight's "Parks and Recreation" finale to an upcoming edition of "Nashville," Michelle Obama seems to be the go-to TV guest star these days. But why?

The real question is, who's really benefiting here, especially with May sweeps nearly upon us? Is it the networks? The White House?

Is it us?

It's unclear how Obama will amuse us on "Parks and Rec," though she continues a guest-starring tradition pioneered by John McCain and Joe Biden. The giggles seem more likely to fly over on "Nashville," where Obama and Kellie Pickler will band together with Connie Britton to save the teen community center throw a charity concert for Fort Campbell.

[Related: 'Parks and Rec' Finale Scoop: Michelle Obama and Everyone Else You Know Is Coming]

FLOTUS's past visits to TV — on shows such as "The Biggest Loser," "Sesame Street," "iCarly," and "Iron Chef America" — all have garnered plenty of buzz, both good and bad... which, really, in this business, is just good under a different name. After all, "sweeps" is when TV networks collect viewer data and set the rates advertisers pay for commercials, so the more eyeballs, the better.

And Obama still isn't done. Look for the First Missus on the Disney Channel sitcom "Jessie" on May 16. In that episode, Obama gets involved after a young girl decides she doesn't want to celebrate her birthday without her mom, who happens to by serving a tour of duty in the military.

First ladies have always had some place on TV, ever since a well-rehearsed Jackie Kennedy took America on a feverishly staged tour of the White House in 1962. Since then, we've seen Betty Ford help reveal Ed Asner's secretly awesome social life on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and watched Nancy Reagan teach Gary Coleman to "just say no" on a Very Special Episode of "Diff'rent Strokes."

But Michelle Obama has definitely taken guest-spotting to a whole new level, possibly as an effort to be the most approachable-looking First Lady since the aforementioned Kennedy.

[Photos: Michelle Obama's Best Looks Ever]

The Obamas are "comparatively younger, and they've made themselves more of an accessible first couple," says former network programming researcher Marc Berman, now editor-in-chief at TV Media Insights. "They're nice-looking and they have young children, as opposed to the old days of a presidency when you felt very separated from them."

Of course, it goes without saying that every appearance Obama has made supports one of her official causes — childhood obesity or military families. Her "Nashville" gig is clearly linked with the latter, while her trip to "Parks and Rec's" Pawnee seems to have something to do with a health-related project.

But at the end of the day, it's likely the networks who are benefiting more than Obama. And the numbers prove that. According to Nielsen, FLOTUS's appearance on "iCarly" garnered 4.3 million viewers, compared with a season average of closer to 2.2 million — nearly double the typical audience for that show.

Her "Iron Chef" appearance did even better: 4.6 million viewers, compared with a season-wide average of around 1.1 million viewers. Even "The Biggest Loser," a network TV show which already boasted around 6.3 million viewers during the season in which Obama appeared, got a small bump of roughly 100,000 people on her night.

So it's very likely that TV shows keep booking this first lady for the same reason any TV show likes any big celebrity during sweeps: ratings.

But that may change if Obama continues to make herself so available, Berman warns.

"There is a risk of doing too much," he says. "It's going to become too frequent. The average citizen is going to think, 'Why is she doing this? Why isn't she with her husband running the country?'"

"And it also won't seem so special. People won't say, 'I can't believe she's doing "Nashville"!' It'll be just, 'Oh, she's doing "Nashville."'"

Michelle Obama appears on "Parks and Recreation" Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC, on "Nashville" May 7 at 10 p.m. on ABC, and on "Jessie" May 16 at 8 p.m. on Disney Channel.

Got a Burning Question? Tweet it to us @YahooBurningQs.

Leslie Gornstein is an entertainment writer and the host of the weekly Hollywood gossip podcast The Fame Fatale.