Commentary: Race garners high interest, low ratings

Debate ratings not living up to election hype

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- When all is said and done, will anyone remember the presidential debates of 2008?

Maybe Joe the Plumber.

There weren't many memorable moments during the three debates, all of which were upstaged in the ratings by the Oct. 2 vice presidential square-off between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, which at least had the advantage of introducing to viewers a new star, Sarah Palin.

It's been that kind of year: There has been almost unprecedented interest in the presidential campaign, but that has simply not translated into humungous ratings for the debates.

Most Americans say they would rather see John McCain and Barack Obama talk about their "fundamental differences" -- OK, maybe not those exact words -- and how they're going to get us out of the financial mess the country's in. But often what they really hope for are a few fireworks or major slips of the tongue. Unfortunately, we didn't get much on substance and got even less in sizzle.

Only the third and final debate, moderated at Hofstra University by CBS' "Face the Nation" moderator Bob Schieffer, had any life. Schieffer learned the lessons of the three other debates and also was determined not to settle for the same pat answers. He dug, and pressed, and wouldn't let the candidates off the hook easily -- all of which made for a more interesting 90 minutes than its predecessors.

But it was too little, too late. The first two debates leaned more toward never-mind TV. Ratings weren't anything to sniff at, especially the second one, but for what almost everyone agrees is the most important election since 1932 during the Depression, one fact stands out: Tens of millions of viewers were more interested in last February's Super Bowl than in the debates.

Why is that?

Maybe it has something to do with the format, which seems to barely have changed since Lincoln and Douglas mixed it up in Illinois in the 1850s.

You would think, with all of the changes to the media landscape even in just the past four years, the Commission on Presidential Debates would have come up with at least a few tweaks. But every decision hinged on the conventional, from the topic of the debates to how many minutes each candidate would have to answer the question. It's as if the Web never happened. Even the so-called freewheeling format, the Town Hall-style debate, has been around for decades and is rooted in a New England tradition hundreds of years old.

The commission ignored the example set by the networks during the dozens of primary debates, when they reached out to YouTube, MySpace and Facebook because they are new ways that Americans -- particularly younger ones -- interface with politics and the news. The commission did strike a deal with MySpace, which netted a companion Web site and a handful of questions during the Town Hall debate.

But it's just not good enough.

CNN senior vp and Washington bureau chief David Bohrman said at a CNN-Time election conference last week that he was disappointed the debate commission hadn't taken to heart the lessons of the CNN-YouTube format.

"I think they're deadly dull and could be on TV in 1984," he said of the current debate structure. "The ones we're seeing today, it's the same set."

The CNN-YouTube debates took some knocks, especially since CNN was the final arbiter of which questions were asked, rather than allowing vox populi.

"Had we done that (allowed the Web to rule), the top two questions would have been 'Is Arnold Schwarzenegger a cyborg?' and 'Will you convene a UFO conference?' " Bohrman said. CNN did let through the infamous Snowman questions, for which Bohrman makes no apologies.

"It was funny. And it was a way to get at the question of global warming without getting hydrocarbons per milliliter in the answer," he said. "It was a good way to get at the question from a different angle."

It also showed that candidates can possess a sense of humor and be spontaneous.

"They shouldn't be afraid of a snowman," Bohrman said.

And neither should the debate commission. Maybe, four years from now, they won't be.