GOP debaters aim for votes, but TV aims for ratingsby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The Republican presidential candidates will be back on TV for another debate Saturday night in South Carolina. It will be the 10th time they have debated this year, and the events have become highly produced money makers for their sponsors.
The campaign on television may be the biggest reality show of the year, extravagant broadcasts with elaborate, custom-designed sets and graphics, and large live audiences coached to cheer as they would at a rock concert or football game.
Take September's CNN tea party debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. The broadcast started with ominous music behind fast-moving, dramatic video featuring a determined-looking President Barack Obama. The narration sounded like a Monday Night Football opener:
"Tonight. Eight Republicans. One goal: To win the White House and kick Barack Obama out."
More video segments introduced the candidates, giving each a tag line. Mitt Romney was called "the early front-runner." Rick Perry was the "Newcomer." Herman Cain, the "Businessman." Michele Bachmann, "The Firebrand." (You can see the highlights here.)
The number of these primary debates began exploding in the 1980s after CNN opened shop. Since then, an expanding number of cable TV news outlets has been competing to stage and market them.
"The directors at the cable networks are sort of coming into their own in perfecting what we've seen evolving over the past several cycles, really to the point that I think some are beginning to question what are the basic values of these events that we're trying to project," said University of Missouri Professor Mitchell McKinney, who studies presidential debates. "Are we really doing more to promote the stage, the performance and the drama rather than learning from these candidates?"
Whether or not the debates do anything for the voters, there is a clear benefit for one group: the sponsors.
"The platform of the debate has worked very much into our favor," said Greg D'Alba, who runs CNN's advertising sales operation. "The debates are a great thing," he said. The audience for debates is growing because of interest in the presidential race and the rise of social media, D'Alba said. He won't say how much money CNN is spending and earning on its debate productions, only that both numbers are increasing.
"Are we looking at sometimes four and five times our [regular] audience? Sure. Does this mean that we're spending more because of multiple platforms? Absolutely it does. Does it mean that, as an organization we're bringing in more because of our extended commitment to our advertising partners? Absolutely it does," he said.
Unlike general election debates, in which audiences are asked to withhold their applause, the primary debate audiences have become part of the show.
In early September at an MSNBC debate, spectators interrupted a moderator's question about the death penalty to cheer Texas Gov. Rick Perry's statement that Texas had executed more than 200 people during his term.
Earlier this week the crowd at a CNBC debate booed when the moderator brought up sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain. Second later, the crowds roared in approval when Cain defended himself. And it chuckled when Perry couldn't remember which federal agencies he wanted to eliminate.
McKinney said his research shows that the more hype, whether it comes from the audience, the moderator or candidate, the less substance viewers take away from debates.
"It is the case that certain structures, in particular, the kinds of debate structures that we're seeing in these primary debates, individuals may say that was more fun or entertaining," he said. "Then when you ask them about the candidates' positions and to compare differences among the candidates, they're not able to do so as well as opposed to the type of general debate."
Even McKinney said he finds the primary debates exciting, and that he eagerly tunes in for the political theatre of it.
D'Alba denies CNN's goal is to create entertainment programming with its debates: "The first responsibility is to be a sound news journalism organization. If while doing that sometimes we're entertaining, so be it. And if five million or six million viewers for a particular debate mean that it's an entertaining screen event, it is what it is."
Between the Democrats and Republicans, there were 40 primary debates four years ago.
The only nomination battle this time around is on the GOP side. All told, there are about two dozen primary debates on the schedule.
- All Things Considered, 11/11/2011, 4:53 p.m.