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CNN's debate extras: Trying to keep it from looking like 1984

October 7, 2008 | 12:04 pm

Cnn_vp_debate3_2After a presidential primary season packed with network-produced debates that used YouTube and other new media to involve viewers, the four debates being organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates this fall may seem rather old-fashioned by comparison.

To put it bluntly, “the presidential debates look like they’re happening in 1984,” said David Bohrman, Washington bureau chief for CNN, who produces the network’s political coverage. “This has been a year of really interesting innovation, not just at CNN but all across cable news. Then you get to the commission debates and it feels just very old and stale.”

So CNN has done its best to liven up the forums. If you tune in to the cable channel to watch tonight’s showdown between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, you’ll notice the screen doesn’t look the same as the feeds running on the other networks.

As the presidential candidates spar, a graphic on the bottom of the screen will chart the live reactions of a focus group of undecided voters in Columbus, Ohio. Squiggly lines representing men and women will rise and fall as the candidates speak, an instant reading of how the debate is playing with these voters.

This isn’t the first campaign in which CNN incorporated focus group reaction into its debate coverage. But in past years, it used the data only on a simulcast that aired on Headline News, an extra for political junkies.

This fall, executives decided to make the focus group results part of its coverage on the main network.

“I think television viewers these days are OK with a little bit of extra information,” Bohrman said. “It’s a way to intellectually push off and test some of your own beliefs. It’s a little bit like hearing the boos and cheers at a sporting event, a little context of what the crowd is thinking.”

Viewers watching the debates on high-definition get yet another feature: real-time scorecards from CNN’s team of analysts and reporters that gauge whether the candidates have effectively taken advantage of opportunities. The round charts line the left and right side of the screen, in the extra space provided by the wider HD picture.

Throughout the year, CNN has been experimenting with how to take advantage of the high-definition screen. Some of its new features fared better than others. The updated delegate counts the network ran during the primaries were effective; a noise meter that measured the din on the floor of the political conventions was deemed less so.

The idea for the scorecards “just popped into my head,” Bohrman said. The feature is an effort to show “in real time if there was any kind of consensus or discord of how the debate is being perceived by our team.”

“If you had these guys over at your house during a debate, wouldn’t you want to know?” he asked.

That said, Bohrman added that he wants “to be careful not to trivialize the debate and not to treat it like a sporting match.”

“I hope people are getting some value out of it,” he said. “It’s an interesting little extra bit of data. If you don’t want to watch it, you can turn the channel. It’s on every other network, looking exactly the same.”

-- Matea Gold