CNN/YouTube debates to feature user-generated content

Frank Davies
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

WASHINGTON - User-generated video invades a presidential debate for the first time next month in an experiment in streaming democracy that its sponsors, CNN and YouTube, say will shake up a staid format and attract more participants.

The two sponsors Thursday announced the details of the two-hour debate of Democratic candidates July 23 in Charleston, S.C. Users will be at the center of the process, supplying almost all the questions to be used, in the form of video clips no longer than 30 seconds.

"This is wide open to creativity in the use of sound or graphic or picture or who knows what," said David Bohrman, CNN senior vice president. "I think the tone and flavor will be so different from any other debate that any of us have ever seen."

Part of the format will include a traditional anchor, CNN's Anderson Cooper, who will introduce the video questions and have the flexibility to ask follow-up questions, and bring different candidates into the discussion.

Steve Grove, head of news for YouTube, said that all submitted clips will be available on the site before the debate, giving users a chance to view and rate potential questions. But CNN will make the final decision on which clips to use, winnowing the thousands of expected entries down to about 20 to 30 clips for the debate.

That means some popular entries may not make the cut, Bohrman said, which will leave CNN open to second-guessing. Bohrman said CNN will "vet the clips" for accuracy, context and tone.

"You're not going to be seeing `Obama girl' clips," he said, referring to a popular music video clip featuring a scantily clad woman suggestively talking about Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

Grove predicted the new debate format will attract more users to the political process. CNN will allow all footage from the debate to be used in personal videos, and Grove said he expected that the video dialogue between questioners and candidates and users will continue after the debate.

Another CNN/YouTube debate for Republican candidates is scheduled for Sept. 17 in Florida.

Political and Internet analysts said the first debate to feature user-generated content has the potential to revitalize a format that many voters find stale and unsatisfying, and to attract more viewers.

"This is the future of politics, and candidates will need to embrace it, even with the risks," said Bruce Mehlman, a leading tech lobbyist and former Republican operative. "This is a fascinating experiment. I think user-generated video will become the yard signs of 21st century politics."

Mehlman called the upcoming debate "reality TV meets `Face the Nation.'"

Micah Sifry, a founder of, which tracks online political activity, sounded a note of caution about the new format.

"There's an element of hype here," Sifry said. "Real people have asked questions before in debates and this doesn't change the mode that much. Why not include the audience in choosing the questions?"

Sifry also said the unlimited time, space and participation of the Internet was being "grafted onto the existing, rotting structure of a televised debate format."

Bohrman said that CNN will keep the selection process for questions private so candidates are not tipped off in advance.

The debate may boost YouTube in its competition with MySpace and Facebook to become the preferred platform for candidates and campaigns. All the candidates are flocking to these sites, trying out ads and new tools for reaching and mobilizing voters.

The CNN and YouTube officials would not disclose the business terms of the deal, but Grove said there will be advertising tie-ins. YouTube gets major exposure among cable viewers, and CNN gets more attention from computer users who often criticize the mainstream media.

The impact of online politics has grown dramatically in recent years, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. By February, 21 million users had watched political videos, and during the 2006 campaign, 14 million users created or shared political content.





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