The Debate Debate

If you're actually paying attention to the ongoing Republican presidential debates (I think we're at around 234 of them now) you've probably noticed how the uptick in TV production values impinges on their import.

Take, for example, Tuesday night's CNN event at Constitution Hall in Washington. If you were there or watching CNN on your computer you saw what's called "the warm-up." This is when the debate producer and moderator, in this case Wolf Blitzer, take the stage before the actual broadcast and talk to the live audience.

A producer gins the crowd with applause lines, says he'll be in the corner of the stage signaling when to applaud when the telecast starts and so on. The moderator says things such as "we're going to have a good, serious, substantive discussion" and/or mentions how many cameras there are and that audience members can watch a replay later and possibly even "see yourself on television," which Mr. Blitzer (or, as Herman Cain calls him, "Blitz") declared to be "pretty cool."

When the broadcast opens, there's big music, historic video clips, a barritone narrator proclaiming the high importance of being president and then the beauty-contest parade of contestants striding one by one across the stage, smiling and waving, to breathless introductions from "Blitz" in his very best "let's-get-ready-to-ruuummmble" voice. Then comes some soulful rendition of the National Anthem by an actor from "Jersey Boys."

Finally it's showtime. But if you've tuned in (or are a debate participant) and don't fully grasp what a debate is about, the moderator explains, as Blitzer did, that it's about issues and that "on some of these issues you'll agree; on some of these issues you'll disagree."

We're now maybe 10 minutes in. This is all more about showbiz than the peoples' biz. As the New York Times points out, a CNN debate in Tampa included an introduction that gave nicknames to candidates: Bachmann the firebrand; Gingrich the big thinker. An MSNBC debate in the Reagan Library in California had its audience sit under Reagan's retired Air Force One jumbo jet, which hangs from the library ceiling.

Veteran presidential debate moderator and my old friend Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour (we worked together on some public affairs programming in the 80s) is quoted in the Times saying, "My God, if they keep this up, the next thing somebody is going to say is we're having a debate underwater at 5 a.m....someone should remind them these are being produced by the news divisions of these networks, not the entertainment divisions."

He's right. But the problem is people are watching in numbers double the viewership of pre-2008 debates. Which means we can't be far from candidates in sashes and tiaras.

Sigh. And grrrr.