Last night's tense exchange between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama marked the end of an extraordinary cycle of debates. The sheer number, combined with the unusual amount of public interest, forced organizers to innovate new forms and provide more openings for interaction.
Now, a bipartisan coalition of newsmakers, media critics and bloggers are demanding permanent change to make the debates more "of the people," in part by asking the networks to release debate footage into the public domain to be used for commentary and exchange on online platforms. In a letter to the candidates, the coalition proposed two major principles for open debates:
1) The presidential debates are for the benefit of the public. Therefore, the right to speak about the debates ought to be "owned" by the public, not controlled by the media.
2) "Town hall" Internet questions should be chosen by the people, not solely by the media.
The coalition's demands reveal the new conditions for making public media—the process is no longer about the media; it's about the public.
For example, watching Current TV's Hack the Debate last night was an eye-opener. Commenting live via Twitter, audience members not only caught the gotcha lines in real time, they offered their own stories of how the financial crisis is affecting them, and responded to moderator questions about why they were undecided as voters. Contrast that to CNN's market research-driven approach, which reduced focus groups' real-time responses to mute lines on a graph.
"While interactive TV won't be for everyone, it has enormous potential for changing the way we experience programs. In the case of Current's experiment, it meant a viewing experience that was much more engaged in, and critical of, what was being seen and heard. But it also means more work, and rethinking our relationship with the tube," writes Chris O'Brien in the Mercury News. "[I]t made for more informed, critical viewing than if I had watched on a network and listened to some talking head after it ended tell me what to think about what I'd seen. And in this age of spin and cynicism, anything that helps us be more engaged and informed as citizens is something to be applauded."
Even the term "interactive TV" smacks of an old paradigm. Those without access to Current via cable could watch a streamed version of Hack the Debate online. And if the members of the Open Debate Coalition get their way, "the tube" may no longer be the next go-to venue for the next cycle of debates. Stay tuned.