Boeing's efforts to burnish its reputation as a defense contractor got an unlikely assist from two recent prime-time TV shows that were...

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WASHINGTON — Boeing’s efforts to burnish its reputation as a defense contractor got an unlikely assist from two recent prime-time TV shows that were wet kisses for the company.

On Sunday evening, several minutes of the popular NBC series “The West Wing” were devoted to praising the Boeing-built C-17 cargo plane.

The Oct. 5 segment of “E-Ring,” a new NBC series about a Pentagon special-ops team, skewered both the French and Boeing’s competitor, Airbus. The show sniped at Airbus’ desire to challenge Boeing for a contract to build aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force.

It is a crucial time for Boeing: Its hopes to build a tanker based on its 767 commercial jet hangs on an secret analysis of alternatives for upgrading the tanker fleet that is now being passed around the Pentagon.

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The outcome could determine how long Boeing builds 767s in Everett. Boeing officials worked with the Defense Department and the Air Force last month on “The West Wing” scene at their Long Beach, Calif., plant, in part because the company felt it would be a good morale booster.

“We got a call about two weeks before they were ready to shoot,” said Rick Sanford, a Boeing spokesman. “West Wing” producers had seen news clips of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visiting the plant. They needed a location for one of their characters, played by actor Jimmy Smits, to make a “whistle-stop” on his fictional campaign for president.

Smits was filmed emerging from a shiny C-17.

“This is a great example of how we can strengthen national security and strengthen our economy at the same time,” his character said, adding, “The C-17 is our most advanced military cargo plane.”

It was a lobbyist’s dream, both a defense and economics pitch for Boeing. “We were very happy with the script,” Sanford said.

Boeing was so delighted, it donated the $10,000 location fee from “West Wing” to the Red Cross.

Boeing did not know in advance about the “E-Ring” episode, said Walter Rice, another spokesman.

“E-Ring” stars former wildman Dennis Hopper as a crusty Army colonel. In last week’s episode, an Armani-clad French attaché of questionable character is asked to help the U.S. with a rescue in Iran. The diplomat says the French won’t commit unless Airbus is guaranteed a “fair chance” to bid on the tanker contract.

That, of course, would be the same tanker contract that belonged solely to Boeing until a scandal derailed the deal and landed two Boeing officials in federal prison. Airbus’ plan to partner with Northrop Grumman to bid for a new tanker contract is controversial on Capitol Hill.

Airbus officials declined to comment on whether they would try to get boosts for their planes included in plots of American shows.

“TV is fiction, but the tanker competition is real,” said Guy Hicks, a vice president in Airbus’ parent company, EADS North America. “We’re going to focus on reality.”

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com