Debates as Infotainment

12/24/2007 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Question: What do the presidential debates have in common with Dancing with the Stars?

Answer: the audience wants to see who falls on his or her butt.

The debates have become a media phenomenon, a cross between America's Top Model and Survivor. Any minute, you'd expect Tyra Banks to tell one of the candidates to pack up their skivvies and go home, or for Mark Burnett to order the Democrats and Republicans to gather into teams, eat live bugs and fight with wooden staves.

Not the group-grope phase has ended, and we can look forward to the nominees of each party locking horns. But the infotainment scent of the whole endeavor will remain.

Anybody who remembers the first televised debate, between Nixon and JFK, as I do, recalls a black and white, very sober discussion of the cold war, education, farm subsidies, domestic communism and the status of Taiwan. ABC's Howard K. Smith was the moderator, and there was no levity or showmanship in his demeanor. (Infotainment only got a nose under the tent because Kennedy looked great with his Palm Beach tan and Nixon refused pancake makeup and looked pale and ill.)

What's interesting when you read the transcript of that debate is how detailed, lengthy and wonkish the answers of both candidates were. The national attention span, it seems, had not yet begun to shrivel. Neither candidate was asked for a one-word answer, and the questioners, a panel of national reporters, would not have thought to ask for one. Nobody was asked questions by talking snowmen.

In those days, the debates ran on all three networks simultaneously.

News, in those days, was considered a loss leader and the corporations that ran the networks didn't expect JFK and Nixon to be ratings winners like I Love Lucy or Mr. Ed.

Today, however, news on television is all about money, and the debates have become a marketing tool for the networks and a showcase for its stars:

SEE Wolf Blitzer trip up Barack Obama on his stand on drivers licenses for immigrants.

SEE Tim Russert snare Hillary Clinton on the same issue.

SEE Campbell Brown try to ignite a shooting war between Barack and Hillary.

SEE Chris Matthews corner Rudy Guliani on supporting public finding for abortions as New York mayor.

CNN has aired reruns of the last democratic debate so many times that the cable channel resembles the networks during the writers' strike. How soon will we see the DVD, with added features like all the costumes that didn't make the You Tube debate, the worst slip up, best one liners (Joe Biden wins this one) and meanest questions. Although, for tough questions, it is hard to beat the one Sander Vanocur posed to vice president Nixon about a comment by his boss.

Vanocur: "President Eisenhower was asked to give a major idea of yours that he adopted. His reply was, and I'm quoting, 'If you give me a week, I might think of one.'"

If DVDs had existed in 1960, who on earth would have bought one? The candidates actually spent quite a bit of time discussing the ins and outs of farm subsidies, and whether the islands of Quemoy and Matsu should be defended by the U.S. if China attacked Taiwan, of if the defensive perimeter should be the large island itself. Americans then had never heard of Quemoy and Matsu, but they probably did know -- at least vaguely -- where Taiwan was. Our geographical knowledge has shriveled so badly that today's voters most likely think it's a Subaru sedan. (I am not exaggerating. On a 2006 Roper poll of Americans 18 to 34, half could not find New York or Ohio on a U.S. map, and 75 percent could not find Iran or Israel on a world map. )

In the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the candidates obviously assumed a thoughtful, intelligent audience, and while both men tried to score points, you didn't get the sense of brief, preprogrammed soundbites, or, as George Will has called recent debates "Tossed salads of brevity." Republican Richard Nixon actually said "It may be necessary that we have more taxes." Kennedy said, "I would not want people to elect me because I promised them the easy, soft life." He did not suggest we could win the cold war by going out and shopping. The candidates did not repeat one phrase over and over, like "lockbox" (Al Gore), "a thousand points of light" (Bush pere), "Help is on the way" (John Kerry) or even "Strategery." (Oh, sorry, that was Saturday Night Live channeling George W. Bush).

Will things get better? Will we go back to the policy-centered debates of 1960? Don't count on it. Nobody's going to download deconstructions of social security policy on their iPhones. In fact the way we are going, the more that politics mirrors the latest trends in entertainment and technology, it won't be long before the elections resemble speed dating. Voters will decide who to hook up with by plugging into the candidates' Facebooks, and then text messaging their vote to the Google election commission (a wholly owned subsidiary of Google Earth).

Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."