Those of us who are deeply interested in politics and/or campaigns and/or policy need to come to terms with the fact that this is not common. It is one of the thousands of niches of human interest that saw some sunlight with the arrival of the brightly-glowing Internet. Of all the things there are to care about in the world, we parcel out a decent-sized chunk to care about everything that happens prior to a presidential Election Day. We are not the norm.
If you consider the report from the Annenberg Public Policy Center on improving the presidential debates outside of that context, you're making a very big mistake. Yes, viewership of the debates is down, just as steadily as viewership of the State of the Union has dropped. "In an era where 90% of television viewers watched three networks, and had few other choices," the Annenberg report reads, "the 'roadblocked' debates commanded the available air space." Now that there are other things on, a lot of people watch those other things.
For a subset of those of us who love politics -- particularly the sub-subset that is in the business of getting people to watch their particular things on TV -- that is troubling. "Those who organize debates and those who participate in and watch them generally share the view that overall: these exchanges should be informative and not “canned”; the topics should be wide-ranging and relevant to voter choice and interest...," the report reads. "The Working Group [that drafted the report] agrees. But ..."
That's a tricky "but." Sure, the debates should be informative and relevant, but. But what? But, among other things, "in general it has changed very little since 1992, when the single moderator and town hall formats were adopted. Very few 'television programs' have succeeded with a format that is more than two decades old." Very few television programs air three episodes every four years, either. Regardless, time to spice things up!
The working group's recommendations include totally sensible proposals: more third-party candidates, as diverse a set of questioners as possible, moving up the schedule to account for early voting, and eliminating the hugely cringe-y "spin alley," since all the useful spinning takes place on social media anyway. The recommendations also offer misguided ideas to liven things up, including allotting candidates a total set number of minutes to speak, with on-screen countdowns every time their mouths are moving. Why not have them also engage in a decathlon at the same time? The lessons we could learn from American Ninja Warrior. (Editor's note: I endorse a presidential version of American Ninja Warrior.)
There are three sets of recommendations here: Recommendations that would improve the content of the debate, recommendations that would reduce costs and recommendations that would draw more eyeballs. It's the last group that should probably be ignored. Trying to make the debates into a watchable TV spectacle to bring back viewers -- not unimportant to the networks -- will almost certainly be in conflict with presenting thorough, thoughtful consideration of issues. The most interesting part of the second debate in 2012 was the famous, "Please proceed, governor," exchange. Good television! But it didn't tell us much about the candidates or their positions.
(That also reminds us of another component of the modern media landscape: That clip went viral in the wake of the debate. It's almost certainly the case that it was seen more after the actual debate than it was during the debate itself.)
In another sign that much of the concern about the debates is focused on corporate viewership metrics, we have the announced primary debate partnership between ABC News and the conservative social-viral site IJ Review. This has all of the aroma of a panicky old media company grasping onto the Hot New Thing. Maybe that's wrong; maybe, instead, it was some Director of Social Engagement's play for a big raise by showing how savvy he or she is with the #millennials. But it is a move that clearly falls into the third category above. It is this:
Sure, maybe you can get more Social Traffic or InstaBuzz for the debates. Maybe you can "increase direct candidate exchanges" to get more of those "please proceed" moments. Maybe the idea is that this is the spoonful of sugar people need to help the politics go down. With its "but," the working group acknowledges tacitly that perhaps the actual content will suffer.
What we've learned from the ascent of the Internet is that people will and do make a massively diverse set of decisions about what they may and may not want to pay attention to. There are a lot of things a lot of people would rather do than watch a political debate. Maybe they end up being less informed! So be it. (Also: Maybe they don't.) So add bells and whistles to get them to pay attention, but recognize that increased viewership won't necessarily mean that people actually care or learn much about the politics.
Any more than someone who only watches the Super Bowl can tell you what is and isn't pass interference.