NBC’s sprawling 10-person debates show why a foundering TV format needs to be rebooted for the Internet Age

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There’s no shortage of commentary from partisans, pundits, politicians, and political reporters about who “won” or “lost” last night’s Democratic presidential debate on NBC News, honing in on how the candidates performed, rose, fell, responded or rebutted one another, or the moderators did (or didn’t) succeed in informing the public about the personalities or potential governing style of the men and women on stage.

There are literally thousands of articles out there today that will offer the curious summaries of the first debate, substance of the positions, fact-checks, highlights, spin, satire and everything in between. The debates last night and tonight were livestreamed online, enabling the public to watch and comment on their social media platforms of choice throughout out. Today, if you just want to read an annotated transcript of the debate or watch archived video, you can do that online, too:

That’s all progress, but here’s something you may not have heard or read: the Commission on Presidential Debates and NBC News have made a series of shambolic decisions with respect to format, technology, and moderation that fell far short of the standard the American public should expect in 2019 – and we’re all likely to see them on display tonight, in round two.

Let me explain. For many election cycles, going back a decade, networks have experimented with bringing technology into the campaigns, from questions from YouTube that led to the spectacle of a talking snowman to various forms of online experiments. And yet, in 2019, there is still a marked absence of feedback loops between the electorate, the moderators, and the politicians vying for the attention that could lead to support in the polls and fundraising.

Instead, we saw “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd conduct a “lightning round” where candidates were asked to name the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States, after which he declared it was the best moment of the night.

Imagine, instead, NBC News asking the same question of the campaigns ahead of time and then asking the candidates WHY they chose that threat and what they would do as president to address it.

See the difference? The networks should be asking the public what should be on the agenda of the candidates and then putting beat reporters in the position of acting as the public’s advocate on the spot. Journalists should be asking tough questions about the economy, foreign policy, environment, human rights and more, with the time and space to press for followups when the politicians inevitably try to answer the questions they wish they’d been asked or would prefer to answer instead.

The absence of journalists as interlocutors is why Twitter Q&A’s aren’t ideal for holding politicians accountable, but the absence of the people formerly known as the audience from that stage is why a 10 person scrum isn’t ideal for informing the public, either. (On that count, breaking the debates into hour long segments with 5 candidates might have worked better, too.)

Instead of the ungainly, messy spectacle of candidates talking over one another, with patient requests to the moderators for the opportunity to respond or comment, let them “buzz in” with requests to comment, with moderators in control of whether someone’s microphone is live or not.

In 2019, the potential for digital media to improve campaign debates through increasing public access online has been realized through rapid advances in mobile broadband and smartphones, but NBC’s approach to debates has failed to keep pace with the precedents set a decade ago, much less set new precedents in public involvement, participation, or insight.

Imagine if NBC asked the public if a given politician actually answered a question, or not. Or what questions they should have asked in the first hour, but didn’t, reverting back to a televised debate from the 20th century. After my experience as a social media analyst in 2012, I’m still choosing to watch the debates without the Internet – but the networks hosting them need to go back to the drawing board. Our democracy deserves better.

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