YouTube is trying to do something drastic to the presidential debates: Make them watchable, which would go a long way toward increasing their relevance to voters.
CNN and YouTube will stage the first of two debates Monday, July 23, with voters asking questions via 30-second videos that have been submitted to the user-generated-video sharing site.
“The Internet has this remarkable ability to connect groups of disparate people who formerly didn't have a community,” says CNN's Anderson Cooper, who will moderate the debates.
“I think anything that does that and brings people to the political process is a good thing.”
Monday's debate among Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Christopher Dodd, Joe Biden and Mike Gavel is sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee and airs live on CNN at 7 p.m. ET from the Citadel in Charleston, S.C. The second CNN/YouTube debate, among Republican candidates, will take place in Florida on Sept. 17. CNN hopes that the format will increase what are straggling ratings for pre-convention televised debates.
Monday's program also will appear live on such platforms as CNN.com, CNN International, CNN en Español, CNN Radio and CNN Airport Network.
Users began uploading question videos on June 14 through www.youtube.com/debates. As of early last week, the site was attracting 200 new videos each day.
Cooper and a team of editors and producers—including Sam Feist and David Bohrman, CNN's political director and Washington bureau chief, respectively; and Steve Grove, YouTube's editor of news and politics—have been poring through thousands of submissions, whittling down the pool to the 20-30 queries set to be used during the debate.
Questions have been posted randomly on the site to keep candidates in the dark as to which will make the final cut. One video, which is on the debate site's home page, had been viewed 271,543 times as of late last week.
Viewers can also upload responses to the debate via CNN's iReport portal.
“What's interesting about [the questions] is the diversity of topics and of people asking,” Cooper says. “It's not surprising, given what we've seen on YouTube. I think it's going to make the debate really interesting.”
Heart of the question
Many of the questions are provocative and earnest. A high school graduate from South Dakota laments the skyrocketing cost of college and the lack of government aid while trillions are poured into defense and national debt interest.
An African-American man standing in front of a check-cashing center in Oakland, Calif., wants to know what the candidates will do to stop the spread of these centers and end predatory lending in low-income neighborhoods.
There are multiple questions about health care. Kim, a brunette with a pronounced Southern twang, is shown charging X-rays and sundry medical expenses on her credit card. “I would like to know how you're going to make sure that all Americans have health care available to them. And make it affordable,” she chirps, “because I'm sick of not being able to afford to get sick.”
Many questions reflect the cheekiness of the viral-video nation.
A clean-cut thirtysomething man in a dark-blue suit, a serial poster who tabs himself a comedian on the site, wryly bemoans the morass in Iraq: “Some feel the current administration has got us into deep doo-doo. My question to you is: Have you got rubber boots? And if so, have you got more for us?”
Format still under debate
The format of the debate was still being massaged last week. Some of the more humorous questions may be combined for a comic-relief montage. The main goal, explains Cooper, is to ensure that the “spirit of the questions really do infuse the whole thing.
“My job,” he adds, “is to make sure the candidates actually answer the questions and don't just use the videos as a jumping off point to make a stump speech.”
At the very least, the CNN/YouTube events could offer some relief from the scripted nature of political debates where the overarching themes of each evening are less about facing issues head-on than endless posturing, the occasional gaffe and the grim countenances of candidates.
“We believe that a level of authenticity to the political dialogue is what voters and candidates are really striving for,” says YouTube's Grove. “This allows everyone to pull back the political veneer and communicate directly.”
There's no question that the Web is now a major staging ground in politics.
Candidates have announced their candidacy, raised cash and advanced their political platforms via their own sites. Hillary Clinton's Sopranos spoof, in which she teased the hotly anticipated announcement of her campaign theme song, premiered on her Website.
It was widely disseminated on the Internet and television, allowing Clinton to show a jocular side without spending a dime of precious campaign cash on airtime.
In today's video-obsessed universe, where everyone with a cellphone is a potential video voyeur, politicians are—or should be—accustomed to having their every move shadowed. But while candidates have accepted the manifest presence of the 'Net, they may have yet to completely adjust to it or learn how to use it to their favor.
Corporate parentage aside, YouTube still projects a populist spirit. And in this case, that may be good for politics.
“We've seen debates,” says Cooper. “We've seen how [candidates] answer questions. I don't think we need a repeat of that. I think what's interesting about this debate is that the candidates don't really know what to expect. I don't think we know what to expect either. And I think that's a good thing.”