Egos! Ratings! Marketing! Oh my — the real clash in every debate

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Egos clash. Star-power is weighed. Ratings are consulted. And, finally, decisions are made.

Sounds like voting procedures for the Emmy Awards, but that’s also how panels of news-people are picked to host political debates.

This election cycle, those debates are more important than ever, critical to the process of thinning out a huge herd of candidates, many completely unknown to the public-at-large. Just who is asking the questions — and how they ask them — plays a crucial role in which candidates and issues stick in the minds of viewers.

Long ago, most presidential debates were sponsored by non-partisan groups like the League of Women Voters, which also chose the panel of questioners. This meant that sober-imaged professionals from PBS and similar outlets often dominated. But now, at least in the primary debates, each event is hosted by a network or news channel. Their agendas are often complex, mixing the imperatives of eye-catching television with the demands of strong journalism.

The debates deliver impressive ratings, far beyond what most news programs — especially on cable — could ever hope to attract. These events quickly become important marketing tools for channels and their best-known anchors. Long and frequent commercial breaks during each event feature relentless publicity for other programs on that channel, along with “image spots” that promote an overall good feeling about the network and its celebrity anchors.

That star-power is a key factor in how each panel is constructed. No network would even consider airing a debate without including home-team heroes like Rachel Maddow and Lester Holt (NBC/MSNBC), Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon (CNN), or David Muir and George Stephanopoulos (ABC). Try it, and you’ll get an angry phone call from someone’s agent. Your head of marketing and publicity isn’t going to be very happy, either. 

But those big names affect the tone of the debates: Larger-than-life TV professionals tend to grab the spotlight and come across as more important than any of the candidates, making some politicians at the podiums seem trivial. It’s not a mystery; the anchors are better known than almost anyone else on stage, and grabbing the spotlight is exactly what they’re trained to do.

They also shape the kinds of questions that are asked. Most on-air stars are generalists, not beat reporters with expertise in a particular area. Years ago, debates featured one leading anchor as moderator, who didn’t ask any questions but instead tossed to a panel of expert journalists from a variety of organizations. Each specialized in one area: foreign affairs, the environment, unemployment, etc. Their questions and follow-ups had more detail and context. NBC News legend Sander Vanocur, who recently passed away, had a graduate degree from the London School of Economics. He brought that know-how with him as a panelist on the very first televised presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

Economics, climate and foreign affairs have all had their moments in the current debate season, but the noisiest soundbites reflect modern TV’s focus on conflict and heat. Bumper-sticker wedge issues like busing, open borders and free health care for undocumented immigrants have spawned the most headlines.

There is a way to balance all of this, if the networks would let go of the marketing and celebrity essentials now baked into the debate recipe: Return to the old formula that featured just one star anchor as moderator. Next, same as back then, choose panelists from a variety of news outlets, specialists who understand the details of the beats they cover.

Instead of marketing a network or creating conflict television, the goal would be to ask better-informed questions and get better-informed answers. The questions wouldn’t have the “gotcha” odor that pervades panels today, and candidates would quickly figure out it’s harder to dance around a serious topic that their interrogator knows well.

In the end, this could actually be a good marketing ploy, too. Smart questions from knowledgeable news-people in front of a large, live TV audience might just improve the image of journalism overall. That kind of publicity would be a win for everybody.

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 worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 Democratic debates American television networks Anderson Cooper Don Lemon George Stephanopoulos Rachel Maddow Sander Vanocur United States presidential debates

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