West Wing 7×07: The Debate

[Writer: Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 11/06/2005]

“Okay, let’s have a real debate.” – Santos

The story behind why “The Debate” exists is an interesting one. Far more interesting, in fact, than “The Debate” itself.

A bit of history. The West Wing is not remembered as a ratings juggernaut, but during its early seasons, it did pull in solid numbers for NBC. The network was still smarting from the loss of Seinfeld when it slotted Aaron Sorkin’s show for a fall 1999 premiere, and a tumultuous shakeup in the network’s upper management (Warren Littlefield, the network president, had been shown the door the previous December) had left the network in search of new ideas.

Several of the network’s premieres in the ’99 season flopped (perhaps you’ve heard of one of them), but The West Wing was a success, courting an audience of affluent, upper-class viewers that made the advertisers go gaga. The show had a comfortable timeslot, Wednesday nights at 9 PM, competing with the popular Drew Carey Show and trouncing Star Trek: Voyager. (In response, the Voyager writers took a shot at Sorkin in one episode by naming a group of dead Starfleet officers after Bartlet and his staff.)

The ratings improved over the course of the second and third seasons, the latter of which saw the show finally hit the Nielsen Top 10. It had a comfortable spot on NBC’s Wednesday night lineup, between the feel-good drama Ed and old reliable Law & Order. All seemed well.

But NBC itself was showing signs of wear in the early 21st century. Jeff Zucker, who took over as president in 2000, greenlit one failed show after another, constantly juggling the schedule and relying increasingly on weathered sitcoms like Friends and Frasier. And it was falling behind CBS (which debuted a monster hit in CSI) and hotshot FOX (which delivered a lightning rod in American Idol).

The West Wing‘s ratings began to decline in the fourth season, and continued to ebb away in the fifth. Part of this could be attributed to the show’s decline in writing and Sorkin’s much-publicized departure, but the competition certainly wasn’t helping matters – it was being outdone in viewership numbers by The Bachelor on ABC.

In 2004, Zucker left NBC, and was replaced by Kevin Reilly, fresh off his stint as head of FX (where he had turned the network into a basic-cable HBO through shows like The Shield and Rescue Me). NBC had by now lost Friends and Frasier, and several of their other long-running shows were experiencing Nielsen decline. The West Wing was now in its sixth season, opposite American Idol and steadily losing viewers, and renewal was up in the air.

After much deliberation, Reilly gave Wells and Co. a seventh season, but with several changes. Notably, the per-episode budget was cut roughly in half. This meant that the show could not afford to keep all its castmembers on for 22 episodes; most of them would appear in 13 or fewer. And after six years in its comfy Wednesday night at 9 PM timeslot, The West Wing was moved to Sunday nights at 8, against CBS’ Cold Case and ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Ratings for the series instantly cratered, with numbers far below those of Seasons Five and Six.

There was no question that Season Seven would be the show’s final year; NBC had no serious reason to pick up an eighth. But that didn’t mean the network couldn’t try to boost the ratings and help the show as it limped to the finish line. So there were musical guests (Foo Fighters! Keb’Mo’!). There were news anchors appearing as themselves (Chris Matthews! Forrest Sawyer!). And of course, there was “The Debate.”

The Live Episode is right behind The Crossover and Someone Will Die as one of the most blatant ratings-grab tactics a show can use. (The West Wing did employ a SWD for Season Five’s “Gaza,” but never went full crossover – mercifully, as the last thing we needed was an episode where Bartlet suffers a stroke and requires JD and Dr. Cox to save him.) And to be fair, it’s an exciting sell – this will all be happening in real time! No room for error! Come see these actors walk a screenwriting tightrope with no net below them!

And no network is better-versed in live episodes than NBC. They are, after all, the people who have kept SNL chugging along these last four-plus decades. Over the years, NBC has produced live episodes of Will and Grace, 30 Rock, and John Wells’ ER (the latter directed by Thomas Schlamme, no less). There was even an entire season of Undateable broadcast live in 2015.

So a live episode seemed like the perfect solution to The West Wing‘s ratings problem. Thus, we have “The Debate,” an episode filmed as it aired, centering on the first and only Presidential debate between Santos and Vinick. (Two versions of the episode were filmed, one each for the East and West Coasts; the latter version is what shows up on DVD and streaming services.) Following a quick intro showing the minutes leading up to debate prep, the bulk of the episode is devoted to the debate itself, with the two candidates battling it out over a multitude of issues while Forrest Sawyer looks on.

“The Debate” is an anomaly of an episode – it is simultaneously fascinating and boring, an utterly disconnected episode that nevertheless demands attention. Nothing about the episode has any major influence on the season’s overarching plot; nor does it feature any serious character introspection. It is essentially meant to mimic the style and feel of a real Presidential debate (if a bit more confrontational than what audiences in 2005 were used to), and – to its credit! – it does a much better job of that than “Game On” did.

But beyond that, is there much to say? The only other noteworthy thing about “The Debate” is that it features not a single character introduced prior to Season Six. This underscores how The West Wing has become a very different show over the past two seasons – which, to be frank, is a fitting message for a very different episode.

But like I said at the top, discussing what happens in “The Debate” is far less interesting than discussing the mechanisms that led to its creation. I hope you enjoyed the little behind-the-scenes look, and I apologize to those of you who were expecting me to give a substantial analysis to this substance-free episode. Be here next time when the show gets back to its regular schedule, and I return to my regular style of reviewing it.

Postscript: Ratings for “The Debate” were pretty good, and it was one of the most-watched episodes of Season Seven. But in a sad irony, its ratings were bested a few weeks later by “Running Mates,” the first episode to air after the death of John Spencer.

Post-postscript: Two months after this episode aired, FOX’s Arrested Development broadcast “S.O.B.s,” an episode dedicated to mocking the concept of the live episode ratings-grab. It is unlikely that the episode was designed to mock The West Wing (and Will & Grace, which had also pulled the trick in the fall of 2005) specifically, but it did make “The Debate” look even more foolish in retrospect.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ It’s the only live episode of the series. Did I mention that?


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