TV persona vital for tilt at White House

Mon, Oct 15, 2012, 01:00

In 1960, John F Kennedy was trailing Richard Nixon as they stepped into the crucible of the first nationally televised US presidential  debate.

While Kennedy soared, Nixon stumbled and never recovered.

Network television played a definitive role, but those were very different times. There were three networks, not 500 channels, and the internet was still several decades away.

Half a century later, televised debates remain relevant, but the ritual is up against an always-on informational stream that surges with political messages.

Television is packed full of political ads from the $2.5 billion (€1.93 billion) being spent on the presidential election, coverage is up to the second on cable news, and social media followings on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have surged tenfold since 2008.

Against this backdrop, a traditional debate would seem far less consequential.

By this point, voters have already been targeted, persuaded and tallied.

Except for this: 67.2 million viewers tuned into the first presidential debate, according to Nielsen, making it second only to the Super Bowl so far this year.

More to the point, Republican nominee Mitt Romney clobbered president Barack Obama in that encounter, and in the sort of shift that political operatives dream about, moved four to six points in the polls.

Ratings sometimes go up in the second and third rounds of the debate cycle, and given the kind of hype surrounding this contest, there is no telling how many people will watch round two at Hofstra University tomorrow night.

How is it that a TV debate was able to have such an impact at a time when audiences are so fragmented?

Credit live-event television. While ratings for almost everything on television have sunk, big spectacles that hold some promise of spontaneity - NFL games, the Olympics and various singing competitions - continue to thrive.

The first debate earlier this month drew more than 70 million viewers when you count all platforms, including web streaming, breaking a 32-year-old record in viewership for presidential debates and reminding all of us that television can tilt the rink like no other medium.

Viewership for the first debate surpassed the same event in 2008 by 28 per cent, suggesting that even though we've been told everyone has already made up their minds, many chose to see the close encounter for themselves.

"Television is about drama, whether it is the Olympics, the Super Bowl, or Homeland, and these debates have provided incredibly great drama," said Jeff Zucker, former chief executive of NBC Universal, including last Thursday's vice-presidential debate in his assessment.

"It just proves the adage that if you put on a good show, and both of these [previous] debates have been very good television, the audiences are going to be there."

Modern political campaigns seek to control every aspect of the process, but there is not much operatives can do once their candidate is onstage. Audiences watch to see who wins, which is about as primal as the news media gets.

"Televised debates still provide something no other medium can, which is a head-to-head comparison that allows for back-and-forth," said Matthew J Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College.

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