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Online Presidential Debates: Evolutionary, Revolutionary or Painfully Boring?

BY Colin Delany | Tuesday, May 8 2007

[Cross-posted at e.politics.]

Tameka Kee with MediaPost asked an excellent question yesterday when we were emailing about her recent article on the Post’s online political coverage: what about the Yahoo/Huffington Post/Slate online debates: revolutionary, over-hyped, or just what we need?

My answer: business as usual for the world of the ‘net, since just about any media presentation we can think of is eventually going to migrate online, at least as an experiment. In this case, I’m not too confident that the results are going to be satisfying — I can think of few things more excruciatingly boring than staring at a bunch of talking heads in suits for an hour in a tiny window on my computer screen. People seem to like to consume online video in short bursts, not the marathon viewing session that a debate requires. In other words, streaming is SO broadcast-era. But if debates are a product of the television age, what would the Internet equivalent be?

I’d say it’s the side-by-side comparison of candidates’ video clips in what amounts to a virtual debate, but with the critical difference that it’s done with a video-on-demand model rather than with live streaming. Joe Biden did a site recently that uses this idea, and it’s the main draw of collective video channels like YouTube’s YouChoose ‘08. For live events, TV is going to be the medium of choice for quite some time — people will watch live coverage online if they have to, but most will prefer a decent picture and reasonable sound.

Ultimately, the main beneficiaries of the slew of debates that we’ll get to watch over the next few months will be the sponsoring organizations — how many people outside of the narrow world of Washington politics (and Drudge readers) had heard of the Politico prior to last week’s Republican debate? Quite a boost for a new (though well-funded and well-connected) publication. In next Fall’s online debates, Yahoo gets good PR by being all nice a public service-y, Huffington Post can try to build up legitimacy as something other than a partisan organ, and Slate can get in front of more eyeballs than those belonging to its usual smarty-pants readers. The public benefit of one extra debate? Meh.