Z on TV: In TV terms, O'Malley outscores Ehrlich in debate

Baltimore Sun reporter

From the Z on TV blog:

I will leave most of the words in Monday's debate between Gov. Martin O'Malley and GOP challenger Bob Ehrlich to the reporters on the beat and campaign trail.

I'm here to talk about this debate in TV terms. And in the language of television, O'Malley was a clear winner from the opening moments.

Forgive me if talking about appearances seems superficial, TV is a visual medium, which means appearances matter -- often more than anything else. No one reading this analysis needs me to remind them about Kennedy-Nixon 1960.

Ehrlich's worst problem: His suit. It was a kind of gray plaid, and when the camera came in for close-up, it looked as though is was a neon sign flashing on and off -- muted neon to be sure, but still it seemed to be almost throbbing. How his advisers could let him wear a suit this visually distracting is beyond me. It is also not the kind of suit that inspires confidence in the man wearing it.

O'Malley, on the other hand, wore a deep, rich blue suit that looked solid and stylish at the same time under the TV lights. It screamed substance.

Worse was Ehrlich's facial appearance. His face looked pasty, and his eyes seemed slightly sunken and red rimmed. Near the end of the debate, he clasped his hands together, placed his elbows on the desk in front of him and leaned his chin on his fists. It scrunched his face up into a look that was even more unpleasant than the frown the camera often caught him in with reaction shots.

And outside of the chin-on-hands, which could have been prevented with a bit of basic coaching, all or most of the appearance stuff could have been fixed with TV makeup. Again, why Ehrlich didn't have it in such an important TV appearance is beyond me.

O'Malley, on the other hand, looked tan and fit. His eyes were clear, focused and often intense.

O'Malley also outscored Ehrlich in deciding whom he wanted to address and using TV to effectively do so. Rather than talking to host Denise Koch or Ehrlich, O'Malley chose to primarily look into a camera to address the TV audience. In the early going, this left him looking in the wrong direction a few times, but once he got in sync with the flow of the TV direction, it gave a sense of him speaking directly to the audience.

Ehrlich, on the other hand, started out talking to either Koch or O'Malley. He kept addressing O'Malley as "Gov." Whether his intent was a facade of familiarity or what, it seemed more distracting than anything else.

O'Malley did address Ehrlich directly a couple of times, but he saved those moments of direct address for high impact.

O'Malley really scored when he said, "Hey Bob, come on, man," at a point where they were squabbling over O'Malley's record on the topics of zero tolerance and DNA. Using the colloquial, "come on man" to suggest Ehrlich was being unreasonable and perhaps even dishonest is the kind of thing viewers often come to remember as a debate catchphrase. I guarantee you will see it in TV news recaps of the debate today and tonight.

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