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Letting the Audience Talk Back to the Candidates: What You Missed At Last Saturday's Presidential Debate [UPDATED]

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, December 15 2011

As you settle in to watch tonight's episode of "Survivor: Republican Presidential Candidate Edition," which will be airing on Fox News at 9pm with the quaint-sounding title, "Iowa Debate," it's worth taking a look at one feature of last Saturday's episode of the series that didn't get much attention. That program, which was aired on ABC News, included an interactive real-time feedback feature produced by Yahoo News that -- for the first time, ever -- not only invited viewers to respond to the show while it was underway, but managed to push a smidgen of that audience feedback back into the live program, where it potentially could have influenced the conversation.

That is, the people who used to be called the audience were actually given a chance to talk back to a television show, by the show itself. [UPDATE: It looks like Fox is doing something similar with its Sioux Falls debate, asking viewers to "Weigh in! Are the candidates answering the questions? During the debate, Tweet with the candidate name and either #answer or #dodge. And watch how the audience responds live."]

Before I go further in describing what Yahoo and ABC did, some disclosure is required. As readers of this site surely know, we've long argued for creating meaningful feedback loops using interactive technology, and we have produced several runs of a demonstration of that idea under the banner of 10Questions.com. And those efforts have led the Knight Foundation to support Personal Democracy's 2010 version of 10Questions, and also led the Omidyar Network to give us a small planning grant to convene a meeting of political media and technology leaders last August for a lively conversation about ways that organizations and individuals might use tech to open up the 2012 process. Partially as a result of those discussions, the folks at Yahoo News asked us to provide some consulting to them about their online journalism efforts around the election. So, read what follows with that in mind.

While the debate show was underway last Saturday night on ABC TV, Yahoo's website was featuring a series of live poll questions that reflected the conversation underway on air. (IntoNow, a companion app that Yahoo bought last spring, offered the same option to smart-phone and tablet users.) Question 1 was: "What are you hoping to hear the Republican candidates talk about during the debate?" Jobs and the economy beat out health care and taxes by a huge margin of the 29,000 votes that were quickly tabulated. After some discussion of the candidates' economic proposals, Question 3 was: "Are you satisfied with the candidates' answers on how to stimulate the economy? More than 70% of the 27,500 votes cast said no.

Around this time, I started tweeting what I was seeing from the Yahoo poll, and started wondering if any of this audience feedback would make it back into the actual debate show. And there was plenty of useful fodder. By 55-44, the Yahoo interactive audience said it didn't like Newt Gingrich's going after Mitt Romney's ability to win elections. By 71-29, they said they didn't like Romney's $10,000 bet challenge of Rick Perry. And by 67-33, they said they didn't find Gingrich's answer to a question about citizen review panels for undocumented immigrants.

But it wasn't until the last quarter of the program that George Stephanopoulos, co-moderator of the event, tried to inject some audience feedback into the conversation. Alas, he did so quite sheepishly, and didn't really seem all that enthusiastic about pressing the candidates much after he raised the topic. Here's the relevant snippet from the transcript:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I wanna stick with Yahoo because as you-- we said at the start, we're getting real-time feedback from our Yahoo audience. Over 12,000 people have already weighed in on Yahoo and ABCNews.com. An-- and this is directed at-- at Speaker Gingrich and-- and-- and Governor Romney, because more than 72% say right now they want to hear more from you about your past support for health care mandates.

That's something that they're still not fully satisfied with what they've heard-- (NOISE) from you. And-- and Speaker Gingrich-- I mean, Governor Romney, let me begin with you because-- you were clear. You've said you've always been against a federal mandate; you supported it in the State of Massachusetts. Where there has been some ambiguity, at least in the past, is whether you think that other states should try the mandate. Back in 2007, you said that you thought it would be good for most states to try it; now you say you wouldn't encourage other states to try. Can you explain that?

GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY: States can do whatever the heck they want to do; that's the great thing about-- (APPLAUSE) about our system. I-- I think there's a good deal that we did that people can look at and find as a model, that could--

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The mandate?

GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY: --help other state-- if some-- if they want to, sure. They could try what they think is best. I-- that's-- it's up to other states to try what works for them. Some will like that; some will think it's a terrible idea. We had this idea of exchanges where people could buy insurance-- from companies, private companies-- we have no government insurance, by the way, in our state. It's all-- other than the federal Medicare/Medic-- Medicaid programs. It's all private pay. So people can learn from one another....[etc.]

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Speaker Gingrich-- Congresswoman Bachmann pointed out that as-- as late as May of this year, you supported some form of the mandate when everyone else had-- had come out against it. What finally tipped you over and convinced you that it was unconstitutional?

SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH: Well, I think first of all for the federal government to do it is unconstitutional because it means the Congress-- the Congress, which could compel you to purchase this item, could compel you to purchase any item. And so the question of freedom would be d-- would be missed. And any (MIC NOISE) majority could then decide to make you do virtually anything. I think that's part of why you're seeing a dramatic shift back towards limiting the federal government and towards imposing the tenth amendment as a very serious barrier.

I-- I've been working on health issues since 1974. And I've been t-- and-- and I tried to find a way to break out of where we are, because the fact is the whole third-party payment model, whether public or private, has grown more and more expensive, more and more difficult to sustain. And helped found the Center for Health Transformation that-- for that reason, wrote a book called Saving Lives and Saving Money back in 2002.

We need to fundamentally rethink the entire health system to move back towards a doctor-patient relationship...[etc]

At that point, Stephanopolous's co-moderator, Diane Sawyer, changed the subject to her cough, and whether the government needs to be involved in getting people to take better care of their own health. Neither moderator bothered to say anything like, "Thank you Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich for those answers; if you in the audience want to chime in on whether you were satisfied with those clarifications, please go to ABCNews.com or Yahoo.com and vote." Even without that prompt, live votes kept flowing in. The final tally, in fact, shows 28,000 votes in all on the question and a strong swing of more people saying no, they weren't satisfied with Romney and Gingrich's answers, than before Stephanopoulos asked his follow-up.

All in all, not a big deal. The ramparts of broadcast journalism did not fall. George and Diane's perfect coifs did not get disturbed. At best, maybe one percent of the 7.5 million people who reportedly watched the TV show voted on Yahoo's interactive poll. (The most votes any one question got was about 41,000.) And one can argue that there are all kinds of reasons we shouldn't make much of these online polls--the ballots can be stuffed by partisans, for one thing. And we hardly want live questioning of prospective presidents turned into a kind of mob stampede. The feedback questions themselves were hardly broad enough to reallyunderstand what people watching might be thinking. But Yahoo's experiment deserves to be repeated and expanded. If nothing else, last Saturday they showed that there is no technical obstacle to involving a mass audience in a live TV event. Cultural obstacles--like the reluctance of TV "journalists" to share their spotlight with the public--still remain. But as you curl up for tonight's edition of "Survivor," and share your random reactions via Twitter, remember that we're not that far from the vision given eloquent expression by Christopher Locke, one of the co-authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto:

Imagine for a moment: millions of people sitting in their shuttered homes at night, bathed in that ghostly blue television aura. They're passive, yeah, but more than that: they're isolated from each other.

Now imagine another magic wire strung from house to house, hooking all these poor bastards up. They're still watching the same old crap. Then, during the touching love scene, some joker lobs an off-color aside — and everybody hears it. Whoa! What was that? People are rolling on the floor laughing. And it begins to happen so often, it gets abbreviated: ROTFL. The audience is suddenly connected to itself.