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Nets To Spurn Debate Restrictions

With the first presidential debate Thursday, television networks plan to ignore an attempt by the Bush and Kerry campaigns to stage-manage the event by dictating which camera shots they can or cannot use.

The networks object to a provision in the debate agreement between the two candidates that says they cannot show a reaction shot of Democrat John Kerry when President Bush is speaking, or vice versa.

"The campaigns have agreed to this," said Princell Hair, CNN general manager. "We haven't.

"We have access to these cameras and we're going to — as we would with any news event — decide which is the best way to broadcast this," he said. "A producer in the booth will make those determinations, not some people in the campaign."

Networks are also reluctant to agree to rules that restrict what kind of camera shots they can offer of the audience at the four upcoming debates, three for Kerry and Bush and one for the vice presidential candidates. The campaigns signed a detailed, 32-page agreement on how the debates are to be conducted.

The camera angles may seem like a small point, but campaigns know they offer potential embarrassing moments. Cameras caught President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, checking his watch during one debate and Al Gore sighing during answers given by George W. Bush during a 2000 debate.

As part of a pool for all the networks, Fox News Channel is operating the cameras at Thursday's debate, scheduled for the University of Miami campus.

"We're providing all the networks' coverage and we're not going to follow directions from outside sources," said Paul Schur, Fox News Channel spokesman.

Fox is expected to provide each network with feeds from several different cameras, giving them each discretion on which shots to air.

NBC News, which will show the debate on its broadcast network and on MSNBC, "will use pictures as we see fit," spokeswoman Barbara Levin said.

It's not clear whether the Commission on Presidential Debates will try to enforce these rules; a representative of the commission did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment. Presidential campaigns have the option of dropping out if the agreement isn't followed, but it might be tough to explain to voters that their candidate won't participate because he's worried about a camera.

The moderator of Thursday's debate is Jim Lehrer, host of PBS's "News Hour." ABC's Charlie Gibson and CBS's Bob Schieffer will host subsequent presidential debates, and PBS's Gwen Ifill will moderate the vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards.

The four moderators were compelled to sign the agreement, signifying approval to all the conditions, or run the risk that they will be replaced.

It's unclear whether any of the moderators have done so. A PBS spokesman, Rob Flynn, refused to say whether Lehrer or Ifill would.

Some network executives believe that no one will sign the agreement, except for the campaigns.

"We don't enter into agreements with the people that we cover," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, adding that the network is looking forward to Gibson's participation and plans to cover all four events live.