Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall at a political debate? As the candidates embark on what may be a career-defining moment, what really goes on behind the scenes? And what does it take to plan such a high-profile event?
To get the inside scoop on political debates, I spoke to WNED’s Vice President for Television Production Dave Rotterman.
What big names have debated in the WNED studios?
Dave Rotterman (D.R.): In 2000, outgoing First Lady Hillary Clinton debated Rick Lazio in a huge national race. The debate was a massive undertaking. It was broadcast nationally on an NBC News cable channel.
We’ve also hosted a lot of debates with candidates in mayoral, Congressional and Erie County Executive races. We look for key races in every election year.
What are some stand-out, memorable moments?
D.R.: Rick Lazio pulled something out of his jacket unexpectedly, left his lectern and walked over to Hillary Clinton to ask her to sign a campaign finance pledge. It was striking. It was talked about a lot.
In the race for New York Governor in 2006, Elliott Spitzer debated John Faso on the same night that Buffalo’s “October Surprise Storm” struck. We had no idea how bad it was [outside] because we were so focused on the broadcast. I don’t think anyone in Buffalo watched the debate that night. It was a surreal night.
In 2005, when [Buffalo] Mayor [Byron] Brown first ran, it was such an open seat (there was no incumbent) and he debated three or four other candidates. It was the first time we had such a variety; the different voices and perspectives changed the whole dynamic of the event. It was exciting.
What preparation is involved?
D.R.: We start working about eight weeks out to pull together a date, plan the production, arrange for food, makeup, technical needs and a timekeeper (provided by the League of Women Voters).
Step by step, how is WNED involved?
D.R.: We coordinate with the campaigns and our event media partners. We develop rundowns (a second-by-second detailed broadcast plan) and work with staging, building a set and creating graphics. The day of the event, we run through technical checks of the equipment and microphones. An hour before air time, each candidate walks through the set up with the production crew.
How many people are involved from WNED and what are their roles?
D.R.: On debate night, about 25 to 30 WNED staff are involved: a producer and director; the moderator; engineers; panelists; radio staff; staff who serve as liaisons to candidates; media relations staff; camera operators; staff who work with studio set up, lighting and sound; and volunteers who serve as greeters and direct traffic.
Describe the atmosphere in Video One (the production control booth)?
D.R.: We’re focused on keeping everything on time, on schedule, and making sure each item in the rundown is occurring precisely and in sequence.
What are the major challenges?
D.R.: You can’t hit the pause button on a live debate. If mistakes happen, there’s no going back. You’ve got to keep going. There’s a heightened energy—you’ve got to be on your game.
There have been no major technical issues, but there may be some adjustments, technical corrections. These have to be addressed immediately to keep the production going.
What’s the key to a successful event?
D.R.: Really good partners, including our long-term partners, WGRZ-TV, the League of Women Voters and the Buffalo News. There’s real collaboration among different organizations.
What kind of feedback have you heard from the candidates?
D.R.: The candidates appreciate coming into our building. We have a great studio. A lot of candidates are used to doing small forums; we do a first-class job with staging, lighting and professionalism.
How are the panelists chosen?
D.R.: By the media partners.
Who selects the questions?
D.R.: Moderator Jim Ranney, WBFO-FM 88.7 station manager & director of news and public affairs, meets with panelists about two weeks prior. They talk about issues and write questions. The night of the debate, they decide who asks which question. The community can email questions, so they become a kind of fourth panelist. Jim Ranney selects questions from this pool.
What are the selection criteria?
D.R.: We want the debate to be focused on issues, not personal attacks. So questions are selected to help the community understand the candidates and where they stand on issues. Also, each panelist can ask a follow-up question, so the candidates know they need to address the question asked. We stress to candidates that their responses should be informative to the community.
What was different about the 27th Congressional District debate between Rep. Kathy Hochul and former Erie County Executive Chris Collins?
D.R.: It had an unprecedented reach, airing on four TV stations, two radio stations and about six websites. It will be the first debate to air on public and commercial television stations in both Buffalo and Rochester.
Also, for the first time, the debate’s opening and post-analysis broadcast originated from WGRZ-TV Channel 2. WNED’s representative for the “post-game show” was Eileen Buckley, assistant news director at WBFO-FM 88.7.