Presidential Debates are a Relic of the Broadcast Era (and there’s nothing wrong with that)

Woo hoo, the first presidential debate is tomorrow! Fire up your Tivos, kids, so you don’t miss a second of the non-stop action…and be glad that the professional refs are back on the job.

Okay fine, maybe the debates aren’t really that exciting, and maybe they won’t likely change the dynamic of the election in any meaningful way (past ones rarely have). But that won’t stop the internet from trying to hop onto television’s party barge as it floats by: organizations and publications across the spectrum are encouraging their followers to tweet questions at the moderators, for example, using this very public event to try to get attention for their causes. Plenty of news organizations will live-stream and fact-check the debates as they happen, and of course citizens across the country will use Twitter, blogs and Facebook to register their responses in real time and potentially catapult themselves to digital fame (“duuuuuude, maybe CNN will feature my tweet!”).

All of that notwithstanding, presidential debates aren’t really an internet moment: they’re a broadcast moment. As we’ve discussed on again and again, the ‘net is really a vast collection of niches, thousands (millions) of individual outlets for content and conversation about the infinite array of topics that captivate the human mind. One thing it isn’t, at least not yet? A channel capable of creating single, shared cultural moment in the way that a television broadcast can.

Of course, the TV audience has fragmented as well in the cable/Hulu era, but moments like the debates (or 9/11 or a space shuttle explosion or President Obama’s announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden) resonate in part because many of us see the same thing at the same time, even if we may see it on different channels. In tomorrow’s case, the first debate is a collective event in a way that the online-only world can’t yet be.

And of course, there’s nothing wrong with that! The internet isn’t the be-all and end-all of human communications; it’s a powerful means of spreading information and connecting people, but it can’t do everything we need. One thing it can’t do, at least not efficiently? Reach a large swath of the population at the same time with the same messaging, which is why political campaigns will STILL spend the bulk of their money on television this year.

But the internet does definitely change the environment within which the debates occur, since the modern equivalent of water-cooler conversations will take place on listservs, Twitter, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, et al. Meanwhile, those of us in the advocacy world will be trying to spread perceptions and talking points via our own online channels to try to shape those discussions as they occur. Plus, the parts of the debate that resonate — the ones that live on in video clips and people’s minds — will have a second life in the digital world, perhaps helping to elevate moments that otherwise might have slipped by. But for online communicators, let this moment be just a little humbling: our medium matters, but it’s one of many that do. And for a shared cultural/political experience, you still can’t beat television.


Written by
Colin Delany
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