Republican Debate Demands Threaten Networks' Editorial Control

Requests include barring reaction shots of the audience and ending "lighting rounds."
GOP presidential candidates and their campaigns are setting a number of requirements for TV networks in future debates.
GOP presidential candidates and their campaigns are setting a number of requirements for TV networks in future debates.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Republican presidential campaigns may require TV networks that sponsor future debates to follow a set of restrictions that would threaten editorial control, including barring certain camera angles and styles of questions, and requiring pre-approval for on-screen graphics.

The 15 campaigns’ requests, a draft of which was published Monday by The Washington Post, could also affect who is chosen to moderate the debates. Campaigns say they will consider the “quality and fairness” of moderators’ questions in previous debates to determine if they’ll participate in a network's future contests.

A dozen Republican campaigns met Sunday night to discuss the path forward in response to last week’s widely panned CNBC debate and their growing frustration with how the Republican National Committee has handled the debate process this election cycle.

Ben Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer and past debate negotiator who led Sunday’s meeting, provided the campaigns with a draft of the letter at the start of the summit and has now updated it with additional concerns the campaigns aired during the gathering.

The latest draft of Ginsberg's letter may change, with a final version expected to be agreed upon and sent to the networks this week.

Most of the requests are reasonable and unlikely to cause any friction with the networks. The campaigns understandably want to know what criteria the networks are using to decide which candidates are included, how the debate will be aired and distributed, the names of the moderators and other individuals asking questions, and the onstage setup, including whether candidates will use lecterns or sit at a table. They also want to know the time limits on responses to questions and rebuttals. Meanwhile, they are asking networks to agree to a minimum time limit of 30 seconds for opening and closing statements, and to keep the debate hall temperature set at 67 degrees -- a request that comes after candidates complained of excessively hot conditions in past debates.

But other requests are more problematic, since the TV networks producing the debates are reluctant to give up any control over the direction of the broadcast.

For instance, campaigns would ask the networks to pledge not to use some specific camera shots, including reaction shots of members of the audience and moderators, as well as shots from behind the candidates that show their notes.

The campaigns are also demanding the right to pre-approve graphics and candidates' on-screen bios, and are asking to ban the practice of “lighting rounds," which they say are frivolous and possess a "gotcha" nature.

In addition, the campaigns want each candidate to receive equal speaking time and an equal number of questions -- a requirement that would constrain how moderators conduct the debate and would also be difficult to enforce, since rivals may mention a specific candidate, who would then receive more opportunities to offer a rebuttal, and thus, more speaking time. The campaigns also want “equal quality” of questions for each candidate, a subjective metric that would be hard to enforce.

These requests would go into effect after the next Republican debate on Nov. 10 on Fox Business Network. Fox News, CNN, ABC and CBS are currently slated to sponsor future Republican debates, while NBC's February event was suspended after Republican campaigns criticized last week's CNBC debate.

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