Must-See TV


Accusing George W. Bush of trying to limit the audience for this year's presidential debates, Al Gore demanded that they be inflicted on as many people as possible. Now that Bush has capitulated, he is not the only loser; TV viewers will suffer too.

The professionally civic-minded, of course, agreed with Gore. According to Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, long, boring debates covered by all the major networks are "something that needs to be defended for the sake of the democracy."

No wonder the campaign improvers were so upset about Bush's plan. He agreed to do just one of the three 90-minute events proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Instead of the other two, he wanted to debate Gore on Larry King's CNN talk show and on a special evening edition of NBC's Meet the Press.

These shows would have been shorter than the debates recommended by the commission. Worse, they would not have been carried by every network.

In other words, people actually would have had the option of watching something else. To the good-government types who wring their hands over public apathy, that possibility was intolerable.

"If the presidential debates were held on the networks and days chosen by George W. Bush," The New York Times anxiously reported, "they would almost surely be seen by the fewest number of people ever to have watched them." If so, that would not have been because people were prevented from seeing the debates; it would have been because they chose not to watch.

I know, I know. CNN is a cable channel, and not everyone has cable. As Taylor told the Times, "You should not have to pay a subscription fee to have a front-row seat at democracy."

As a public service, I'd have been willing to invite anyone who didn't have cable and wanted to see the Larry King debate over to our place that night. I'm sure there would have been plenty of seats.

From the perspective of worrywarts like Taylor, the problem was not that Bush's proposed schedule would have made the debates too hard to watch. It was that presidential debates are already hard to watch, and the Bush plan would have made them too easy to miss.

Similar complaints were heard prior to the conventions. Even while conceding that "the conventions are scripted, they're fluffy, [and] they don't make news," The New Republic chided the major networks for failing to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage.

Mind you, political junkies (or masochists) could still get all the convention speeches they could stomach from channels such as CNN and C-SPAN. But The New Republic's editors knew that most people would prefer to be entertained.

By failing to make the conventions unavoidable, The New Republic said, the networks had "made a financial decision to pander to public tastes." Yet somehow they were also "cheating the public" by "forsaking genuine public service." Genuine public service, apparently, means giving the people what they don't want.

And who can blame them for not wanting it? During the Democratic convention, Gore offered this rhetorical gem: "In every generation, we have to make the hard choices, between one direction or another, between going back to the past or going forward to the future." By contrast, the choice between listening to more of such blather and changing the channel is pretty easy.

The last time Gore ran for president, he kept insisting he was "on the side of working men and women." With 12 years to hone that message, he decided he was "on the side of working families." Lately, he has boldly switched to "middle-class families."

As for Bush, I'd rather hear him give a wedding toast than deliver a speech or field questions on Medicare. He's not as funny when he tries to act like a grownup.

The main source of suspense about the debates is which will be a greater handicap: Bush's lack of knowledge or Gore's lack of a personality. This does not make for compelling drama.

One critic of Bush's debate plan did offer a helpful suggestion: Green Party nominee Ralph Nader said the debates should include him and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. Throw in Libertarian nominee Harry Browne and the Natural Law Party's John Hagelin, and things could get interesting. I might even watch.