Should the Debates Be More Lively?

Monday, October 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — With only one debate to go between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the debate goes on: What good are these presidential face-offs?

Overrehearsed, unrevealing, boring — those are some of the complaints lodged against them, as if somehow the debates should bear the blame for the debaters.

But could it be that, if they're really so dull, the debates are serving their purpose very well by revealing the candidates as formula-driven, overcautious and, other than those irrevocable differences in personal style, blandly interchangeable?

Besides, if you want action, watch ``WWF Smackdown!'' Who says a presidential debate must be gripping to be worthwhile?

CBS News anchor Dan Rather, for one. It was Rather who proclaimed long stretches of the first Bush-Gore encounter ``pedantic, dull, unimaginative, lackluster, humdrum.'' Odds are, he spoke for many.

But before the first debate had aired, it was already at the center of an uproar. That happened when NBC and Fox announced their intention not to carry it live. The nerve! They were shirking ``a fundamental obligation,'' as FCC Chairman William Kennard scolded.

At the last minute, NBC gave its outlets the choice of carrying the debate or the baseball game it had originally scheduled. Fox went ahead and aired ``Dark Angel,'' a sci-fi drama about a sexy superwoman in a fetching cat suit.

This posed a terrible threat to the republic. Although the debate was carried live on at least three broadcast networks and four cable outlets, viewers felt the lure of all that other, non-civic-minded fare. Millions, helpless to resist, fell prey to temptation.

This threat continues with Tuesday's final face-off between Bush and Gore (airing at 9 p.m. EDT on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS as well as CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and C-SPAN).

Viewers will face temptation yet again from ``Dark Angel,'' as well as from The WB's teen drama ``Angel'' and countless other diversions lurking elsewhere on broadcast and cable channels.

What to do?

Perhaps Republicans could pass emergency legislation requiring all Americans to watch the debate or risk stiff penalties. An alternate proposal for Democrats: Enact a law providing generous tax incentives to everyone who tunes in.

Problem solved. And now, with viewership assured for future debates, here are other needed reforms.

— Complaint: Inequitable TV Coverage.

During its use of a split screen for the first Bush-Gore debate, CNN made the frame Gore occupied slightly larger than Bush's. Was this meant to give Gore undue prominence and, hence, an unfair advantage? Of course not, said CNN in response to charges of subliminal seduction.

But maybe CNN's technical glitch could be adapted to promote viewer involvement in future debates. With both candidates displayed in a split-screen format the entire time, viewers could phone either of two numbers (at 99 cents per call, payable to the appropriate campaign) to indicate a preference for one candidate over the other.

Thanks to this continuous audience feedback, the size of each candidate would grow or shrink as the broadcast wears on. Or even vanish altogether, bringing the debate to an abrupt but decisive finish.

— Complaint: Too Much Blue.

What's with those blue backdrops? Granted, blue is big on the American flag. But what about a break from all that blue dominating each debate stage set?

Better yet, how about wiring each candidate with sensors that could trigger background hues corresponding to his emotional state as he speaks? Besides the visual appeal, it could be very telling — sort of like a panoramic mood ring.

— Complaint: Debates Are Too Slow.

Well, this is just preposterous. In fact, the debates fail to hold viewers' interest for the opposite reason: They don't go slowly enough. In the future, debates should impose dramatic pauses to build suspense.

For instance, after the moderator asks each question, make the candidate wait to answer while that weird music from ``Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'' plays. The candidate can gather his thoughts. Phone a Friend if he's stuck. Maybe sweat a little. Viewers will be riveted.

Come to think of it, next time why not say goodbye to Jim Lehrer and enlist Regis Philbin as emcee! Of course, he would have to be instructed not to bother asking, ``Final answer?'' Even Regis couldn't pin a politician down on that.


On the Net:

Commission on Presidential Debates:


Elsewhere in television ...

`GEENA DAVIS': Determined to prove her dedication to Max (Peter Horton) and the kids, no matter what the sacrifice, Teddie (Davis) skips having tea with Hillary Rodham Clinton to attend a school event with her stepson Carter (John Francis Daley). When an ungrateful Carter repays her with a snub, Teddie goes to even greater lengths to win him over. Meanwhile, Judy (Kim Coles) joins a self-help group that advocates withholding sex to get men to commit. ``The Geena Davis Show'' airs Tuesday at 8:30 EDT on ABC.


Frazier Moore can be reached at