July 8, 2020

Up for debate

In our last episode, I mentioned the role of television in the nation's political divisiveness. Well, it's back to the political arena once again this week, in a nonpartisan way of course. It's prompted by the recent story that the University of Michigan has withdrawn its particpation in this fall's televised presidential debates due to concern over the coronavirus. The debate, scheduled for October 15, will now be held in Miami. The decision was made in light of "[t]housands of reporters, protesters and attendees [set] set to descend on Ann Arbor for the debate, raising health and safety concerns". Some have suggested the debates be scrapped altogether as long as the pandemic continues.

Now, you can say a lot of things about this site, but one thing you can't accuse yours truly of is being naive; I wasn't born yesterday, a fact to which I can readily testify the way I feel this morning. Naturally, there are plenty of political reasons to think that the virus may just be an excuse, but as I’ve said many times before, this is a television site, not a political discussion site. So while I may have my own opinion about the whole thing (as I surely do), let's just stop for a minute and look at the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 and see if they can't shed some light on the subject.

No social distancing issues here.
Central to the discussion is the reality of the situation: these debates were not events covered by television; rather they were held for television, in order to allow the entire country to see them. It was, among other things, a dramatic demonstration of the medium's ability to educate and enlighten viewers throughout the country. And it worked: 66.4 million people watched that first debate on September 26, and if I remember correctly, it was the most-watched television show in history to that point. The debates were held, not in auditoriums or theaters, but in television studios. In other words, there were no spectators aside from the handlers for both candidates and the television crew.

Given that, one has to ask—all right, I'll ask—why there need to be any ticketed spectators at a televised debate. They're not allowed to interrupt with applause or booing (at least, they're not supposed to), so what purpose do they serve, aside from perhaps allowing influential supporters to see their candidate up close and personal? I'll give you the answer to that one: none. They didn't need a studio audience; that's why they were on television in the first place. So if you eliminated a few hundred or a few thousand people in the crowd, you've already lowered the risk.

That's not all, of course. You can use robotic cameras to reduce the number of crew members needed on the set. Your sound and light technicians can all be in separate areas. You can even set up early in the day, and disinfect the set before the debate if you want. The candidates are going to have makeup people work on them any time they're on TV anyway, so put a mask on 'em if you're worried. As for the panel, you don't need them, either; let one newsperson, agreed upon by both campaigns, act as sole moderator. Throw in the floor director to give the candidates cues, and you're set. Since there are a lot of cities out there that continue to limit the size of public gatherings, you've already got reason to keep supporters and protestors from congregating outside the studio. In short, you've reduced the number of people required onsite dramatically. If you can't hold a debate under those circumstances, you're in pretty bad shape.

Not in the same city? No problem!
But if you're still worried that the risk factor is too high, here's a really radical idea: keep the candidates at home and let them debate remotely. And before you tell me how stupid that is, there's already a precedent for it. Due to scheduling conflicts for Kennedy and Nixon, ◄ their October 13 debate was held via split-screen, with Nixon (and the panelists) in the ABC studio in Los Angeles, and Kennedy in the ABC studio in New York.* The unique format didn't discourage viewership; that debate had the second-highest rating of the four. Surely if we hold Zoom conferences every day, we can manage to get a couple of cameras into Trump and Biden's living rooms and let one of the news anchors oversee the proceedings from the studio where they do the news. Then you don't even have to worry about crowds gathering. As for the press, put a couple of pool reporters in the studio and let the others watch it at home on TV along with the rest of us. There, now, that wasn't so hard, was it?

*In case you're curious, the first debate was broadcast from WBBM-TV in Chicago, the second from WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., and the fourth from the ABC studios in New York. You can (and should) watch all of them here, courtesy of the indispensible David Von Pein.

I realize it's probably not this easy, but it doesn't have to be that much more complicated, either. The point is that if you're worried about holding presidential debates in the middle of a pandemic, you shouldn't be. History tells us that the way it is isn't the same thing as the way it has to be. Crowds gathered for the Lincoln-Douglas debates because it was the only way to see them. That's not the way it is now; there's no good reason for us to hold our presidential debates as if they were circus sideshows. If, after all this, you still can't figure out how to hold the debates, that only means the virus was an excuse.

As I write this, I've got a live soccer match on TV in the background, being played in a 50,000 seat stadium with no fans in attendance. Aside from players, coaches, technical crews and stadium personal, the stadium is empty. Announcers talk about playing the games "behind closed doors"; in Germany, the term is Geisterspiele, that is, "ghost match." (The Germans, of course, have a term for everything.) Actually, I kind of like this idea of "ghost debates"—it describes the state of today's politics pretty well. Ghastly, that is. TV  

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