Networks, Candidates Divided Over Use of Split-Screen Shot During Debate Coverage

By Merrill Knox 

As the networks gear up for the second debate of election season, the New York Times shines a spotlight on a common element of debate coverage: the split-screen shot, which has “long bedeviled presidential candidates who — no matter how many times they are reminded — seem to sometimes forget that they are still on camera even when they are not speaking.”

The major networks and cable news outlets — ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News — all say they plan to use split-screen shots regularly throughout the vice-presidential debate. Fox said it was even considering using them more than it did during the presidential debate last week in Denver.

Campaigns have tried with varying degrees of success to limit television networks from using what are known as “reaction shots” of candidates. … But what the candidates demand and what the networks actually televise are often two different things. By now, the split screen has become just another device to keep viewers stimulated, a product of the 24-7 news cycle like the breaking news crawl at the bottom of the screen.

“We want to give our viewers the opportunity to see both candidates as frequently as possible,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “In a presidential debate, the image of the candidate who is listening is frequently as interesting as the candidate who is talking.”