Television networks say they will not be bound tonight by a restriction in the presidential debate agreement hashed out between the Bush and Kerry campaigns that bans reaction shots of one candidate while the other is speaking.
Representatives of television news operations said they, not the campaigns, will determine which camera angles to use.
''The bottom line is we are not going to bow to outside pressure on restrictions," said Paul Schur, a spokesman for Fox News. The network is functioning as the pool outlet, which will provide debate coverage for the other networks.
Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., cochairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is producing the event, said that when it comes to camera angles, ''some of these [rules] are outside our control."
The 32-page ''Memorandum of Understanding" between the two campaigns regulating tonight's debate includes a number of conditions, including prohibiting ''props, charts, diagrams" and declaring that the candidates may ask rhetorical questions but ''may not ask each other direct questions." The rules also preclude the candidates from wandering outside ''their designated area behind their respective podiums" and forbid either man from addressing the other with ''proposed pledges."
The impact of these regulations on the debate and on the viewers who tune in is a matter of some debate itself. ''I think the potential is there to be unexciting," said Princell Hair, executive vice president of CNN/US. ''It can't be so staged and so robotic that the voters don't get a sense of who [the candidates] are and what they stand for."
Kerry campaign adviser Mike McCurry said yesterday he believes there is ''plenty of room in there to have the kind of give and take and back and forth that I think the country wants to see." The Bush campaign did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Alan Schroeder, an associate professor at the Northeastern University School of Journalism and author of ''Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV," traced some of the desire to tightly regulate the format ''back to the 1992 town hall debate, where President George H.W. Bush got caught looking at his watch." But he also suggested the rules of engagement could be forgotten once the candidates take the stage.
''Debates have a life of their own and a momentum of their own, and there's no way a bunch of lawyers can prescript how a debate is going to turn out," he said. ''I think the networks have the upper hand here."
The networks were not a party to the debate accord and are unanimous in the belief that they are not bound by its provisions. ''We aren't going to enter into an agreement with people we cover," said ABC spokeswoman Julie Summersgill. Barbara Levin, a spokeswoman for NBC and MSNBC said, ''We're a news organizations. We use pictures as we see fit."
Added CBS's Sandy Genelius: ''We plan to cover the event just as we do every other news event."
PBS spokeswoman Shermaze Ingram echoed those sentiments. When asked whether PBS ''NewsHour" anchor Jim Lehrer, who will moderate tonight's debate, had signed the agreement, Ingram said ''no comment." Fahrenkopf indicated that the debate moderators had not signed.
The advocacy group Common Cause, meanwhile, announced yesterday that it, along with several allied groups, had delivered more than 7,000 voter questions to the moderators of the three presidential debates, Lehrer, ABC's Charles Gibson, and CBS's Bob Schieffer.
''More attention should be paid to addressing the many difficult questions this country faces now rather than to details like the height of the chairs the candidates will sit on," said Common Cause president Chellie Pingree in a statement.
With all the controversy over the debate rules, one study released yesterday highlighted the potential value of these events. A University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election Survey taken last week suggested that many citizens were still unclear about the candidates' stands on such key issues such tax policy and Social Security. ''When asked to name which presidential candidates favor a given policy position, respondents named the correct candidate a little more than half the time," the study found. .