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Barry Levinson Headshot

The Future of Televised Debates

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I think I saw the future of televised political debates this past week on CNN. I had not watched the past two political debates on this TV outlet before, and it was a completely different experience than the other channels. This was a hyper-version of a TV debate. Turbo-charged. The screen, in addition to the actual debate participants, is filled with information. On the left and right sides of the screen they have boxes where various talking heads can cast points as the debate is in progress, and at the bottom of the screen there is a graph responding to a specially selected group of "undecided" voters -- the up and down movements of the chart, resembling some kind of EKG, show their feelings to every sentence that is spoken. One color for Male. One color for Female. Obama says something and points register on the screen. Paul Begala liked the comment. William Bennett was unmoved. And so the debate went on. At one point I realized I was no longer listening to what was being said by the candidates. All the bells and whistles had my attention. Who was going to win was my focus now. Content be damned. Little beeps on the screen as points were added or subtracted. And that graph, rising and falling. Half way through the debate it seemed it was a tie based on the points as I counted them. "What if there is a tie?" I thought. "Will there be overtime? Maybe sudden death?" I was completely hooked. This was the sporting event version of a political debate, and it was alive. There was momentum. There was going to be a winner and a loser by the end of the debate. No need to wait until later for the verdict to be determined. No need to digest what the candidates just said. No need for reflection. Instant winner or loser, in real time.

Television has never found an idea it can't exploit. It doesn't matter what it is. Anything that can be made more lively, is more lively. Tweak it, make it more fun, and we will watch. And we will like it. And we will justify it.

Some say we are in the early days of the American version of the fall of the Roman Empire. Therefore, is television the electronic version of the Roman Circus? The events at the Coliseum might be cruel and inhumane, but those leaving the arena sure had a good time. Taste and consequence be damned. "That Christian sure was fast, best I've seen in weeks! Let's go to the baths." But the CNN debate innovations are just the beginning I think. Maybe the real debate event will adopt some of those CNN bells and whistles. Include them in the process to enhance the drama. Maybe even add a truth panel that rings a buzzer when a candidate says something false. Depending on the degree of misinformation, that will determine the point deductions. Buzzers going off have always added fun to quiz shows in the past and refs have used them for dramatic effect during sporting events. There are so many possible improvements that can be made. Content? Forget it. There's too much fun to be had in flashy presentation. After all, the band played on while the Titanic sank.