This year's presidential campaign, from the never-ending string of debates among the Republican primary contenders to the current back-and-forth over gaffes and other trivia, has many thinking there has to be a better way to pick a candidate.
Maybe we already have one. The format of the popular singing competition American Idol could be a substantial improvement on our presidential campaigns. Replacing the endless drone of candidate chatter and sniping with a format that lets voters decide who "wins" each week could broaden political participation.
This new format — let's call it Our American President — would invite all the candidates to appear on a nationally televised program that provides free airtime on a weekly basis. Instead of American Idol's musical themes — such as Queen or Michael Jackson songs — each week would feature a policy area — health care, immigration, etc. — and viewers would tune in to see what each candidate did with his or her time. The candidates would be free to use the airtime however they want as long as they address the topic at hand; they could be as serious or lighthearted as they choose.
When the field of candidates is large, as in the primary season, the time per candidate would be short, but the person with the fewest call-in votes each week would not receive airtime in subsequent weeks.
This may sound frivolous at first, but it has several advantages over our current approach. The problem with candidate debates and most political television content nowadays is that the audience consists primarily of political junkies who have already made up their minds. Monday Night Football, NCIS, and The Big Bang Theory draw more viewership than a typical presidential debate.
Drawing large, broad-based audiences of people who are not already partisans requires more than dry political exchanges. The political "shout fests" that populate cable news use incivility to grab attention, but they have the unfortunate side effect of giving the public the impression that politics is a savage business.
Competition is another way to create excitement and involvement. People watch sports or American Idol to see who wins and loses. Our American President could create a similar sense of tension and unpredictability.
Weekly voting would make viewers feel directly involved. And the broader audience might help parties select more electable candidates. Although the voting would not be binding, the prize of free airtime would be of real value to the candidates.
The judges would not be just journalists or political experts, but a balanced group that can provide lively commentary after each performance — though, just as with American Idol, the judges' opinions would not determine the winner.
Canada already has a program in this vein, called The Next Great Prime Minister, on which four former prime ministers serve as judges, as does the German public broadcaster ZDF (Ich kann Kanzler). In both cases, however, the contestants are aspiring young politicians rather than actual candidates.
So why not lead the way and do it with real candidates here in America? Would it be hoopla? You bet. But many Americans need to be convinced that politics is exciting, interesting, and more than a spectator sport.