How to Fix the Debates

PUBLISHED: December 1, 2011

Installments of the GOP presidential debates are coming faster than episodes of "The Real Housewives," and millions of Americans continue to tune in. However, the latest debate on CNN lost about 2 million viewers from CBS's broadcast 10 days earlier, and 2 million from CNN's debate the previous month.

So, producers keep looking for ways to boost ratings, while concerned voters keep hoping for an approach that provides more insight into the candidates and their views. The objectives need not be mutually exclusive.

First, a few simple fixes. Stop pandering to social media devotees and toss out all references to Facebook, Twitter and the like. Viewers have plenty of time and digital space after each debate to post reactions and assess performances.

Also, do away with questions from the audience – both in the hall and submitted via YouTube. These heavily prescreened submissions add nothing and interrupt the logical flow that ought be developed among moderators and candidates.

Skip the sappy intros. In Tampa CNN introduced the players by nickname – “Michele Bachmann, The Firebrand,” “Rick Perry, The Newcomer,” “Rick Santorum, The Fighter.” For its Las Vegas debate, CNN had each candidate parade down a long ramp as if they were vying for the title of Miss America.

Stop wasting time. CNN’s John King established a low in New Hampshire, asking Santorum: “Leno or Conan?” And Bachmann: “Elvis or Johnny Cash?”

Avoid gotcha questions. John Harwood of CNBC scraped bottom when he asked Mitt Romney if, “as a CEO” he would “fire Herman Cain (for sexual harassment).”

Don’t limit answers to 30 seconds for questions that would, at minimum, require at least several minutes to address.

After this massive cleanup comes the more difficult task of improving content.

Allow the candidates to query each other. Give each participant an opportunity to pose questions to all opponents, and then rebut the answers.

Provide on-site fact checking. Rather than waiting hours for misstatements to be identified on the air and online, have a group of journalists ready to point out clear inaccuracies during the debate, and give candidates an opportunity to respond.

Take a cue from the old quiz show “Twenty-One” and have participants wear headphones during some question periods so they can’t hear their opponents’ answers. Alternatively, bring one candidate on stage at a time for intense questioning, while the others are sequestered.

Try a few debates without an audience. Recent debates have been marred by unsavory outbursts from audience members, and unlike in recent years moderators have made little effort to quiet them. While it is commonly thought that audience energy boosts the performances on stage, there might actually be greater drama and intensity if the candidates had to respond only to the cameras. Notably, the gripping debate that began the modern tradition, Kennedy v. Nixon, was conducted in a television studio with no audience.

With the audience removed, place the podiums in a circle so candidates must look one and other in the eyes.

Show video clips. Use the technique popularized by NBC’s “Meet the Press” and confront candidates with actual footage of statements they have made previously.

Trim the field. After the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3 it would be wise to have fewer participants, based upon results in Iowa and national polls.

Finally, don't over do it. There have been 11 GOP debates since May, and at least two more are scheduled before actual voting begins. Holding too many debates – especially more than one in a given week – does nothing but squelch audience interest while compelling candidates to dwell more than ever on safe, memorized talking points.

Television producers reflexively use techniques that sometimes work in attracting a mass audience. But when it comes to the presidency, discerning viewers would probably vote for quality information over ratings-driven TV.

(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.

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