This week, nearly 50 years after John F. Kennedy went mano-a-mano with Richard Nixon on live TV, the candidates for prime minister of the United Kingdom will appear together in their first-ever televised debate. Will Thursday night's verbal joust represent a sea change in British politics, or merely ninety minutes of yawn-inducing monotony?
From London, here is a preview of what to expect as Britain prepares to join the list of seventy-plus countries around the world that have featured TV debates in their national elections.
THE PLAYERS: Three party leaders will co-star in this year's debates: incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Conservative), and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats). The conventional wisdom casts Brown as a smart but inexpressive dullard, a more somnambulant version of John Kerry in 2004. Because so little is expected of him, Brown enters the arena with the advantage of low expectations. Cameron, a former television executive, is the most media savvy of the trio, but perhaps too slick for his own good - sort of an up-market, right-wing Bill Clinton, minus the empathy. And Clegg reaps benefit from being included in the debate at all, given his party's dim prospects of winning. This positions Clegg the debater in one of two ways: as a refreshing alternative to the more established candidates, or as odd man out.
THE FORMAT: The PM candidates will meet in a series of three town hall style debates over the next three Thursdays, with studio audiences of demographically representative British voters posing the questions. Campaign handlers essentially dictated the rules during weeks of negotiations with executives from ITV, Sky News, and the BBC, the three networks that will take turns producing the programs. As a result, the format includes numerous viewer-unfriendly preconditions, designed more for protection of the candidates than enlightenment of the public. Audience members must submit their questions in advance, and an editorial board will then determine which questions get asked. Each question must be applicable to all three debaters, who will answer serially. Although a brief period of "free debate" will be allowed among candidates, follow-ups from the questioners will not be permitted. The net effect of these restrictions, at least on paper, is to stifle the spontaneity that makes live debates such a fascinating and unpredictable television genre.
MEDIA COVERAGE: British media outlets are displaying the same gleeful enthusiasm for the debates that their American counterparts exhibit every four years. This is an enormous story in the U.K., especially given the debates' novelty. Newspapers, radio, TV, and the internet are abuzz with debate-themed stories, many of them reprising the classic moments of American presidential match-ups, from Nixon's sweaty brow to George H.W. Bush glancing at his watch. It is understandable that the Brits look across the Atlantic for precedents; they have none of their own to fall back on. And because American presidential debates tend to be fairly well watched in the U.K., the examples are familiar. What remains to be seen is whether the all-important post-debate coverage in Britain places an American-style emphasis on gaffes and sound bites at the expense of more substantive analysis.
WHAT TO EXPECT: I have learned as a student of presidential debates that it doesn't pay to make predictions about what will happen in these live, unscripted programs. Or does it? Here in Britain, you can place bets on all sorts of debate-related propositions: who will win (David Cameron is the favorite); which of the format rules will be broken first; whether the handshakes that are supposed to occur at the end of the program actually will occur; and which debater will be the first to "noticeably perspire." Somewhere, Richard Nixon is smiling.
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