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Jewish World Review Dec. 1, 2003 / 6 Kislev, 5764

Roger Simon

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Real or plasma or does it matter?

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | DES MOINES — Live television is not easy; the networks just make it look that way.

It took about 100 NBC employees to get last week's Democratic presidential debate on the air. But before they could do so, one basic question had to be answered: How many candidates actually were going to show up?

All nine Democratic contenders had promised to appear in Iowa for the debate, but 10 days before the event, Joe Lieberman pulled out because he wanted to campaign in New Hampshire instead.

Then, on the Friday before the debate, word began circulating that Democratic senators might filibuster the Medicare vote on the Monday of the debate. So what would Senators John Kerry and John Edwards do? Show up in Iowa to debate or show up in Washington to filibuster?

On Saturday morning, the Kerry campaign assured NBC that Kerry would debate in Iowa. About an hour later, however, the Kerry campaign sent out a press release saying Kerry would be in Washington because "seniors need someone to fight for them."

A few hours after that, the Edwards campaign decided that if Kerry was going to go back and filibuster, Edwards would have to go back, too.

Which left NBC with only six debaters (half of them from the bottom tier of candidates) which meant the debate would look small time.

But what if Kerry and Edwards could be hooked up to the debate by satellite from Washington? Wouldn't that solve things?

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Well, yes, but only if the six candidates who were going to be on stage in Iowa allowed it. And then there was the Democratic National Committee to consider.

The DNC has a policy against satellite hook-ups. "Once candidates know they can hold fundraisers and other events on the day of the debate and get hooked up by satellite, how are you going to get them together to debate?" a DNC official said.

But at NBC's request, the DNC canvassed the six candidates to see if they would allow the satellite hook-up. They say they would, but with a list of demands:

Kerry and Edwards had to be in separate studios in Washington with no conversation allowed between them. Kerry and Edwards had to stand up for the entire two hour debate or sit on the same kind of stool that was provided for the debaters in Iowa. Kerry and Edwards could not have cell phones or pagers with them. An NBC producer would have to be with each one at all times to make sure no rules were violated. And Kerry and Edwards had to be on separate TV screens on the debate stage for the entire two-hour debate.

"That was so if there were any 'sighs and lies' the TV audience would see it," a DNC source said.

If there was a vote on the floor of the senate during the debate, the two would be allowed to leave, but would not be allowed to come back.

This was going to cost NBC tens of thousands of dollars on top of the hundreds of thousands it was already spending, but the network was eager to do it. And set designer Eddie Knasiak sprang into action, ordering two different color backdrops painted for the senators in Washington so their backgrounds would match the background in Des Moines. (The match was so good that in close-ups you could not tell Kerry and Edwards were in Washington.)

Things were frantic at the debate site Sunday — the stage had to be reconfigured to accommodate six lecterns and two plasma screen television monitors — when Joe Lieberman decided he wanted to debate by satellite, too.

Neither NBC nor the DNC was enthusiastic about this, but the other campaigns were canvassed again and at least three voted against letting Lieberman back in.

So the debate took place in Iowa at the Polk County Convention Complex between six live human beings and two remote human beings and it came off without a technical hitch. Except one.

"Whenever a car with a radar detector drove by the convention complex, the picture from Washington got scrambled," Mark Lukasiewicz, the NBC executive producer, said. "But we made sure that never got on the air."

Television: It only looks easy.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate