YouTube, CNN change debate rules
EmptyCHARLESTON, S.C. -- In this sunny, sultry setting bursting with Southern military tradition, CNN and YouTube hope they'll break ground on a new tradition in televised political debates.
It's here at the Citadel, the 165-year-old South Carolina military academy, where the two media companies will test, with the help of the Democratic Party, a new wrinkle on the admittedly tired old debate format. Monday's two-hour broadcast will feature all eight declared Democratic candidates answering no questions from the 2,000-member audience gathered at the McAlister Field House; instead, they'll look to a 25-foot video screen at 30-second clips recorded by YouTube users young, old and interested in the future of the country.
The debate could help alter the traditional format and give computer-literate ordinary citizens and the new media a bigger role in political discourse.
"It's the beginning of everybody figuring out what the role of new media is in the election process," said David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief and the executive producer of the debate. It's Bohrman's job to assemble the CNN campaign set, clear the technological hurdles of having made-for-Web video and audio translate into TV and, with a team of CNN staffers and moderator Anderson Cooper, decide which questions will make it to air.
"Literally anyone, anywhere has a chance to ask a question," Bohrman said. "They're unlike any questions posed to presidential candidates before."
A glance at YouTube, where the nearly 2,000 videos have been collected since June, proves it. The questions range from such serious topics as education, health care, global warming and energy policy to the kind of offbeat, humorous clips that YouTube is famous for. One pair from Tennessee, Jackie and Dunlap from RedStateUpdate.com, challenge Sens. John Edwards and Barack Obama to take off their shirts to see who is more buff.
"Some of them are funny, some of them are incredibly serious. Some have shot on location, some have used props, historical footage," said Cooper, who will moderate the debate. "It's much different than a town hall (format) where someone stands up and has prepared questions where they recite the question. These are very intimate, and very personal in some cases. They're very effective."
Most of the videos aren't directed to any one candidate, which will make it easy for Cooper to direct questions to the candidates of his choice.
The structure of the debate will be driven by the video questions, which will spark so-called modules of up to five minutes where Cooper can follow up and other candidates can talk. Bohrman sees a fairly smooth discussion compared to other debates that he says can have a herky-jerky feel.
"All of the candidates should get the same number of questions, or close to it, and we'll work hard to balance that out," he said. "There will be a trigger question, a discussion starter, from the YouTube videos, and Anderson will have a five-minute window to bring other candidates into the discussion."
Cooper, who earlier in his career worked with Rock the Vote, said the candidates and viewers should expect the unexpected.
"I think no one really knows exactly what to expect, and that's what is going to make it interesting," Cooper said. "Even if the questions have been asked before, they are being asked in a different way."
Said Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia: "It's a significant leap forward because it's utilizing one of the newest technologies for the first time. We haven't used YouTube before (for a debate). We've used e-mail, we've used other forms of citizens' participation, but YouTube is all the rage."
Sabato believes that this form of video participation will bring in young people who are disaffected from the debate process.
The technical challenge of converting Web video and audio to a format that can look good -- and be understandable -- on TV has weighed heavily on YouTube and CNN for a while. Bohrman said that none of the questions will be altered or edited, though some of the technically challenged ones could get a boost in audio.
Perhaps an even bigger challenge will be to the eight candidates themselves. They could conceivably see all or most of the videotaped questions beforehand -- all they have to do is watch hundreds of hours on YouTube -- but they won't know which questions CNN will pick. And CNN isn't telling.
Waring Howe Jr., chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party, thinks this will give viewers at home a chance to see the real candidates, not packaged sound bites.
"How does one prepare for a debate of this kind? You can't -- and I think that's the beauty of it," Howe said. "There's no way to prepare, no way to obfuscate."
Bohrman agrees and hopes that it will be a lot like the candidates do in the low-tech, one-on-one gatherings in the early primary/caucus states of New Hampshire and Iowa, often in private homes.
"I hope the candidates answer them on the same direct and personal level and don't go into posturing and position statements, which is what they do when they answer a journalist's questions," Bohrman said. "It'll be really interesting to see how the candidates react. The candidates are understandably a little bit out of their comfort zone."
On Friday, CNN's staff was busy assembling the set and getting ready for airtime at 7 p.m. EDT Monday. They're using the set that CNN had at the New Hampshire debate in June, which with modifications here and there will be the one the network uses for each of the 10 events it will sponsor during primary season. There are modifications, like the personal video screens on each candidate's podium that will allow them to see the video questions without having to look up at the 25-by-18-foot screen that will show the video as well as the questioner's name and hometown. But Bohrman said Friday that with one successful setup at St. Anselm's College already under its belt, the crew should have no trouble finishing the job by the end of the day. Rehearsals with Cooper were scheduled Saturday and Sunday, in between making the final cuts for the 30-40 videos that will be presented during the two-hour telecast.
The CNN staff, who will be selecting the videos without the input of YouTube, has been busy sifting through the submissions. Bohrman, who said he's seen all of them at least once and many of the best a dozen times, has been packing in time on YouTube every chance he gets. On Friday, he excused himself to watch even more of the submissions that were still coming in.
CNN and YouTube also are helping to give Charleston, a colonial-era seaport steeped in history and the military, a chance to spotlight the center of the Low Country. CBS' "The Early Show" originated live from Charleston on Friday, focusing on the city's culture and history. The national media descended on Charleston during the weekend and, even when the Democrats leave, will remain to cover President Bush's speech at the Charleston Air Force Base on Tuesday. That's all good for Mayor Joe Riley, who has led the city since 1975.
"You can't cover a debate in Charleston without covering Charleston," he said.
This is the first of two scheduled debate collaborations between YouTube and CNN. They'll produce a similar event with the Republican candidates in September in Florida.
"We consider this in a real way the first seed of a potato," CNN's Bohrman said. "I'd love to see a version of this debate in the general presidential campaign."
Sabato doesn't know if the YouTube video participation will stay forever, but he thinks a version of it could catch on.
"It will be part of the future" Sabato said. "I don't think we'll ever again have a debate in the traditional format with a moderator and two panelists. That is boring, and it's one reason why so few people watch debates, beyond the presidential debates."