YouTube debates won't be as interactive and revolutionary as they'd like you to think
TVNZ and YouTube have announced that our state broadcaster will follow the CNN model from the US primaries and allow voters to post questions for the party leaders on the video website.
TVNZ is saying that this is a "new opportunity for New Zealanders to get their issues and concerns heard at the highest level". David Farrar at Kiwiblog reckons "this is a very good thing". But does it mean much at all? And what about the downsides?
The US debates simply aired questions from ordinary people - no different from a town hall meeting, really. Ho hum. There was none of the interaction you might hope of from something labelled 2.0. Those debates too were billed as "revolutionary" and a "discussion" between politicians and the public. But the reviews afterwards were mixed.
Perhaps the most positive impact came from voters who stuck to core political issues, but who came up with questions that specifics that journalists had not thought to ask about. The best example was a question from one Stephen Sorta of California, who asked whether candidates would show "bold leadership" and meet with the leaders of countries such as Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Barack Obama famously replied, "I would". Hillary Clinton hammered him on this point in the primaries and John McCain is still beating him with it.
On the negative side, CNN copped flak for choosing some gimmicky questions during the Democratic debate and was heavily criticised after the Republican debate for using questions posted by Democratic supporters. One in particular by an unpaid advisor to Hillary Clinton, the network admitted they shouldn't have used.
So the vetting done by TVNZ will be important. And that applies to the question as much as the questioner. One of the core issues in a debate like this is just which questions get asked.
With the CNN debates, host Anderson Cooper and his researchers carefully chose the questions, so the media gatekeepers were still very much in control of the topics debated. That's hardly Web 2.0. Yet you can't blame CNN though, when, as CNN senior vice president David Bohrman told Wired magazine, the most popular questions posted were completely nutty.
"If you would have taken the most-viewed questions last time, the top question would have been whether Arnold Schwarzenegger was a cyborg sent to save the planet Earth," says Bohrman, the debate's executive producer. "The second-most-viewed video question was: Will you a convene a national meeting on UFOs?"
How will TVNZ handle this prickly issue? It may be about to risk its debate turning into an alien-inspired farce. According to the statement appearing on most websites today, "A selection of user questions will appear on YouTube for users to vote for their favourites."
That's in the spirit of the web, but using the most popular questions, rather than the most telling, puts the credibility of the debate at risk. Sure, that quote doesn't commit TVNZ to using the most popular questions. But what's the point of assigning a favourites button to these questions if they then ignore the voice of the people? Won't the person with the most popular question feel cheated if he or she gets ommitted? TVNZ may be able to bat away outrageous questions such as "who's your favourite superhero and why?" But cutting a question that's only mildly mad opens them to accusations of censorship.
It's interesting to note that on the TVNZ website, it says "The best questions uploaded to the site will be broadcast live during the debate and the leaders will have to answer them."
Best as decided by whom?
I've got a call in with TVNZ, so will let you know what they have to say.