TV persona vital for tilt at White House


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.

Dickinson said analysis after the Obama-Romney debate indicated the audience was equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, which suggests the debate was a rare instance in which the body politic was all looking at the same thing.

Obama was thought to have done poorly not because of what he did or didn't say, but partly because of how he appeared when he wasn't talking - bored, regal and miffed.

Only television, with its split-screen perspective, can create this kind of X-ray into a candidate's inner workings, which is partly why people tune in.

"His demeanour was a total rookie mistake given that we now have 50 years of experience with the television debate format," said Alan Schroeder, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV.

Schroeder said the way people interact with politics was altered forever on September 26th, 1960, the day of the debate between Nixon and Kennedy. "There are rare moments when you have this very specific catalyst for change and a lot of things changed in a fundamental way on that night," he said. "The visual overtook the words. Media coverage of campaigns has gotten so much more intense and pervasive that the power of the debate, the nugget at the centre of it all, gets underestimated."

The use of social media, far from pulling audiences away, tends to create a magnetism around big-event television. Even those with only a marginal interest in the matter find themselves pulled in by the water cooler chat that springs up on Facebook and Twitter.

But for all the hype about social media and politics the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found more than eight out of 10 viewers of the last debate simply plopped down in front of their televisions and watched.

Theatrically and in terms of ratings, the debates have been a huge success. In this election there are not only two more debates, but a complicated domestic and foreign policy landscape that may yet yield game-changing events.

Still, the ability of a televised debate to land with such significant impact raises a question worth considering: in terms of import, have the hundreds of millions spent on political ads and social media outreach been dwarfed by a single unpaid media event?

It just may be that audiences prefer authenticity to the confection of attack ads and flag-infested promos on behalf of the candidate.

"Picking a president is a very personal thing," said Mark Shields, the PBS analyst. "You want to get to know the guy."

Viewers, indeed voters, want someone who can stand in the crucible of the public square and not only sell themselves but also the power of their ideas. When it comes to being president, those skills come in mighty handy.

New York Times

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