Just imagine if, when the TV cameras pulled back to show the audience during last week’s presidential debate, Charles Gibson had breathlessly exclaimed: “Uncomfortable chairs brought to you by Ikea!” Or if, as the candidates ripped into federal mortgage agencies for causing the banking crisis, a reproving Katie Couric had decreed: “Fannie and Freddie are totally not invited to my next pizza party!”
It may not be exactly the kind of political analysis you’re used to. But if the first batch of presidential debates bored, terrified or annoyed you, consider a different way to watch Wednesday night’s final square-off between John McCain and Barack Obama: Current TV, a cable channel that’s mostly programmed by its own viewers, is running the debate with wisecracks and witticisms culled instantaneously from Internet chatter.
In perhaps the most radical attempt yet to merge television with the Internet, Current’s “Hack the Debate” scrolls comments from the social-networking site Twitter.com across the screen, about one every five or six seconds, as the candidates debate. The comments - known as “tweets” - range from utterly hilarious to surprisingly insightful to unfathomably stupid.
“I was in the control room for the last one, and I almost got a little bored with the debate itself because it was so fascinating to read the tweets,” confesses David Neuman, the programming chief at Current, which is broadcast on most cable and satellite systems.
Because tweets can only be about 25 words long, they’re pithy (or, as detractors say, shallow). Some are simple partisan cheerleading: “Gloves off, Barack. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Some pass along scraps of political esoterica, like a Web site where you can order a recorded version of the Lincoln-Douglas presidential debates of 1858.
Some jeer at the candidates. “I hate the pandering,” complained a tweet as Obama and McCain took turns promising giant government programs to create jobs. “It’s like the whole election is up for sale on eBay. ‘I’ll give you this!’ followed by ‘Oh yeah! I’ll give you that.’” When McCain launched into an ode to nuclear energy, a tweet cracked: “Yeah, Homer Simpson swears by nuclear power too.” Retorted a McCain fan: “Obama is making NO sense - yadda-yadda-yadda health care, yadda-yadda-yadda Bush sucks.”
Others reflect a nonpartisan cynicism. One viewer tweeted that he was playing a drinking game, chugging a shot whenever certain buzzwords came up: “Change, hope, maverick, reform, economy, bailout, nuclear. Did I miss any?”
Television networks, particularly on cable, have been using viewer e-mails for years. Rick Sanchez recently began using Twitter messages on his CNN show. What’s dramatically different about “Hack the Debate” is a partnership that allows Current to use any message that flows through Twitter, not just those addressed directly to the network, collecting them based on computerized search terms like Obama, McCain and debate.
Allowing viewers to write their own commentary was a natural progression for Current, its executives say. The 3-year-old channel is geared toward young adult viewers who program the channel themselves by submitting their own videos.
“The idea when we started was to free up news and information and the power of TV by using two-way tools, turning television into a conversation with the audience,” says Chloe Sladden, Current’s vice president of special programming.
“This is just another way of doing that. We’re not an entrenched player so we don’t have a required way of doing things ... We can do stuff like put tweets right next to faces of future presidents of United States.”
Between 10 and 15 Current staffers huddle together in the control room during each debate, screening thousands of tweets and tossing out the obscene, the hateful and the too-dumb-even-for-TV, though standards on the latter category are flexible. (“Obama keeps blinking a lot. When it comes to body language, that means he is lying, look it up.”) “We’re going for the snarky as well as the insightful,” admits Sladden. “Some of it is stupid, sure, but it’s not like politics itself is not stupid at times.”
In fact, Current executives argue, “Hack the Debate” is downright patriotic, even when it’s airing a tweet that asks, “With the direction the campaign has gone, shouldn’t Jerry Springer be moderating?” Insists Neuman: “The founding fathers would be proud. This is the dialogue of democracy, that always was and always should be part of the dialogue of our political process.” Certainly the person who sent in this tweet during the last debate would agree with him: “If I was in the audience, I’d totally be trying to get the wave going.”