Debate Season Gets A Makeover

When the subject of news is featured on the TV Board, it is almost inevitably in the context of a negative commentary -- generally referencing obsessions with trivia, lapses in judgment and so on.

This piece goes against the trend, inasmuch as I want to focus on something that I think is innovative, a little bit brave and that just might even go so far as to benefit society (after that last bit I’m sure some of you will think I’m off the medication).  Alarmingly, the subject of my interest is one of the news majors -- namely, CNN.

While I don’t claim to be a devotee of everything CNN does I’ve always admired the network’s willingness to experiment with platforms and formats.  Indeed, it is hard to think of an electronic platform where CNN isn’t active and well-established; it even seems to dominate public spaces like airports and airlines.  It probably has a greater claim to a position of cross-media ubiquity than any other news provider in the U.S.

And now this long-standing Big Media brand is getting jiggy with the upstart that has had so many others in the Big Media club wailing and gnashing their teeth in angst and throwing legally backed tantrums as if they were going out of style (no names to protect the foolhardy).  Yes, I’m talking about the CNN YouTube Debates among the plethora of Democratic and Republican Presidential hopefuls (July 23rd and Sept. 17th respectively).

Rather than regard YouTube as a traffic-hogging, malicious threat to established media looking to attract the younger demographic, CNN has cannily recognized that YouTube has way stronger pull with this audience, and entered into a collaboration that gives the audiences of both the opportunity to actively participate in each party’s debates.

Everyone benefits. CNN gets close to the YouTube crowd and delivers some serious innovation to the normally dry debates through harvesting the user-generated questions YouTubers have prompted as part of the exercise.  YouTube gains access to the debate process and effectively becomes co-host with CNN.  It also gets some serious promotion on CNN, and exposure to a somewhat older demographic that may show some return.

The third beneficiary is the political process and the candidates. As one of the people who has posted a question on the site points out, the opportunity to have your question posed to the candidates is “way cooler than reading your [the cadidate’s] profile on myspace.”  The lack of engagement with the political process among 18-34s is well-documented.  Although this exercise alone won’t effect a wholesale change in younger voters’ attitudes and their propensity to discuss the issues and ultimately vote, it can only be hoped that – if sufficiently successful – it will help to show how even “boring” issues like politics and politicians can be made engaging if they are approached in ways that reflect the behavioral and attitudinal profiles of that groups. so that other experiments like this will follow.  After all, younger people are not disinterested in politics.  It tends to be the political process itself that most often lead to a lack of engagement.

Of course, success isn’t guaranteed.  Although the total number of questions required to fill the TV airtime the debates take up won’t be that high, for the project to be seen as a success by the online audience that will browse the site, there will have to be plenty of content submitted.  Right now, there are about 1,300 questions, so one could arguably say it was a success already – especially considering, again, this all relates to politics.

Similarly, the presentation on the program will need to work for all parties.  For CNN, that will be a matter of business as usual (the programs will be good for ratings).  For the political process, it is hard to see how this can’t work out well.  It involves “real voters” and is demonstrably more inclusive than any debate previously held.  

But ultimately the proof of performance among the YouTube community will be hard to gauge.  Most of these will probably not be regular CNN viewers; although Anderson Cooper is probably the best choice for the job of moderator, it’s possible that even his relative youth and easy style may not sit well with the YouTube generation.  Ultimately, this will probably best be assessed in YouTube’s political video blog, Citizenblog, where one can expect a user-generated autopsy to take place after the event.

Probably the biggest threat to the project is the candidates themselves.  I may be wrong, but I suspect that if they are perceived as patronizing, posturing, ducking the core of a difficult question or simply using each question as an opportunity to trot out a campaign statement, then the whole exercise will be deemed a letdown.  The opportunity to post questions likely raises expectations that will not be satisfied by business-as-usual.

Hopefully, CNN will have some good and probing questions to choose from and Anderson Cooper will manage to herd the political cats and deliver a couple of debates that are not only original in concept, but also in content and impact on the night.

Judging by some of the content posted so far, I imagine we can also expect to see “the questions we left out” online as a best-of-the-rest offering.  And look out for a question from Melissa Compagnucci -- a fresh-faced and quirky young Californian who I can’t help but think is going to pop up somewhere in the proceedings with one of the several questions she’s posted to date.

So thumbs–up to CNN and YouTube for pulling together this experiment in participatory democracy, programming innovation, audience development and modern-day we-the-people-ism.  If they could just arrange for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to post some questions that could be sneaked into the debate, then I’d be a very happy bunny.



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