In yet another example of life imitating art in this campaign, it turns out that the idea to adopt this free-flowing format may have been inspired by The West Wing. According to Lawrence O'Donnell, who was a writer and producer on the show, he tried to persuade Lehrer to chair the fictional debate between Santos and Vinick, but his contract wouldn't allow it. However, both Lehrer and the debates commission were intrigued by the unmediated format of the debate and studied the tapes carefully.
Of course, in the West Wing version, the decision to throw aside the usual debating rules and address each other directly was taken spontaneously by the candidates, rather than determined in advance. What's more, in the fictional version both Santos and Vinick engaged in lively, respectful debate with each other. In the real life version, one candidate (Obama) respectfully acknowledged his opponent's achievements, while the other (McCain) stubbornly refused to use his rival's name or even to look at him. Obama may have inspired the characterisation of Santos, but despite some superficial similarities, John McCain is no Arnie Vinick.