The reality-TV lesson for Democrats and their game-show debates

The reality-TV lesson for Democrats and their game-show debates
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Democratic presidential candidates can make a strong statement right now, with one bold move. It will further their pledge to restore dignity to the office and trust in the process that puts someone in the White House.

They all can refuse to show up at the debates in Miami on June 26-27.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE is justifiably criticized for turning the executive branch into a reality show — a rough-and-tumble political version of “Survivor,” punctuated by sharp sound-bites and knife-edged tweets in place of policy discussion and consensus building.

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But nothing resembling good government will be on display in South Florida, either. Twenty presidential candidates over two nights will eagerly participate in a game-show competition, all for a chance to hit the golden buzzer and move on to the next round of “America’s Got (Political) Talent.”

The rules created to choose debate participants are more complex than anything on “The Voice.” The 20 Democratic contestants represent a larger cast than the coming season of “Big Brother,” and the speed-rounds needed to keep the evening moving along will outdo even the fastest version of “Double Jeopardy.”

If fact, a lot of Democratic Party leaders, for some reason, seem to enjoy forcing their candidates to answer complex questions in very short bursts. At a major Iowa fundraiser, 19 presidential contenders delivered speeches confined by the rules to no more than five minutes. California, living up to its laid-back reputation, granted presidential candidates a comparatively Zen-like six minutes each at the state party convention earlier this month.

It’s hard to figure out what is to be gained by any of this, especially from a party mired in controversy over whether to encourage its candidates to show up — one at a time — for an hour-long town hall-style discussion of issues on Fox News. A massive cluster of contenders on a debate stage dispenses with any pretense of civic respectability. Instead, by its very nature, the event surrenders to the rules of reality television.

Donald Trump understood that in his bones. Schooled by his show, “The Apprentice,” the candidate knew how to stand out in a crowd of contestants, with cameras trained on every move. In the very first Republican Presidential Primary debate, featuring 10 candidates in August of 2015, he grabbed the TV screen’s attention: Trump refused to pledge support for the party’s eventual nominee, waved off insults made toward women, and called the nation’s leaders “stupid.” Yes, he broke the rules of debate decorum, but he mastered — and exposed — the script that really mattered.

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If you knew reality TV, you knew the role he was embracing: the out-of-control, unpredictable contestant — the guy from “Big Brother” who made everybody angry but also commanded every moment of every episode.

When that first debate was over, the Washington Post used an age-old entertainment industry metric to measure who dominated the evening: Trump had more than ten and a half minutes of screen time, versus 8:47 for second-place finisher Jeb Bush. In his version of “The Amazing Race,” Trump won.

And his victory didn’t stop there: By creating unexpected moments, Trump’s performance went viral — video clips were shared around the world, water-cooler talk traded in every office.

This is the atmosphere those 20 Democrats have agreed to accept by traveling to Miami. If the goal there is to break out of the pack by seizing the camera, it will only happen in two tried-and-true TV ways: making a gaffe or acting outrageously. But the Democratic candidates insist they won’t follow Trump’s over-the-top lead — and, if that holds, everyone will just play it safe. They will answer questions that they knew were coming with prefabricated responses that moderators assumed they would elicit. No mistakes will be made — no news, either.

There is another way to go, something that would add real value: The party can just slow down. Election Day is 16 months away. Time will elevate the strongest contenders, without the use of an artificial growth agent like these early multiplayer debates. Meanwhile, candidates can agree to more town halls, taking questions from real humans, face-to-face. Even on Fox News.

Most effectively, those seeking the highest office in the land can forego this game show by heading back to Iowa and New Hampshire. They can talk to voters there who care enough to take time out for a meeting: farmers bruised by tariffs, families battered by opioids. These people, most likely, will say they really have no interest in games.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.