TV election debates attract viewers but are short on substance | Election | DW | 12.09.2009
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TV election debates attract viewers but are short on substance

As Chancellor Merkel faces rival Steinmeier in a TV debate Sunday, guest commentators Alan Schroeder and Christoph Bieber trace the origins of televised election debates and their growing popularity around the world.

Angela Merkel, right, with Frank-Walter Steinmeier

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to square off with her rival Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a television debate

Alan Schroeder is an associate professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-risk TV." Christoph Bieber is a political scientist at the University of Giessen in Germany with an emphasis on political communication and new media and the Internet and democracy. He writes regularly for various Weblogs.

Long a fixture of Western political campaigns, debates are increasingly becoming standard elements of elections around the world.

So far this year, Iran, Afghanistan, and Mongolia have all held their first election debates in history. Over the past two years, high-profile campaign debates have entertained and informed voters in the United States, France, Spain, Austria, Poland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia - among many other countries.

In the US, last year's Obama-McCain debates drew between 56 and 66 million domestic television viewers, with millions more watching around the world and on the web.

France's Sarkozy-Royale matchup in 2007 generated enormous audiences, with 20 million people, or half the country's registered voters, tuning in. Similarly high levels of viewership accompanied recent debates in Spain and Poland.

"Public viewing" could swell audiences

German audiences have also responded enthusiastically to live debates. Both of the 2002 Gerhard Schröder-Edmund Stoiber debates attracted 15 million viewers, the single Schröder-Angela Merkel debate in 2005 was followed by an audience of about 21 million - only important matches of the national soccer team are able to compete with those numbers.

Since the World Cup in 2006, "public viewing" has been a popular practice to follow media events - the 2009 debate probably will be the first in Germany to help gather additional audiences in public places.

Although the worldwide popularity of debates is particularly evident at this moment in time, it has taken many decades for the tradition to take root around the globe.

Even in countries with established histories of campaign debates, the institution remains fragile, wholly dependent on the willingness of candidates to confront their opponents in a live, unscripted setting. As history has shown, this can be a dangerous game for its star players, because debates are more easily lost than won.

Kennedy-Nixon duel began TV debate era

The first country to broadcast debates during a national electoral campaign is Sweden, where a tradition of radio debates among party politicians dates back to the 1930s.

The Swedish example underscores the popularity of these events as political theater. In 1948, the national leaders' debate played out before a live audience of more than 30,000 citizens gathered in Stockholm's Vasaparken.

Presidential candidates Nixon, left, and Kennedy preparing for a TV debate

Pundits expected Nixon, left, to dominate the debate, however Kennedy ran away with it

It took America's Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 to move debates to the burgeoning medium of television. At the time, political observers were surprised when Richard Nixon accepted John F. Kennedy's challenge to a series of four joint TV appearances.

Although Nixon considered himself the superior communicator, it was Kennedy who approached the debates more seriously, preparing for the events with long hours of study and intense practice sessions with aides.

Kennedy even made sure he had a good tan before the first debate, so that he would not look pale on camera. In the end, John F. Kennedy prevailed as the clear winner, proving the power - and the peril - of live debates. So frightening was this lesson that another 16 years would pass before the American debate tradition resumed with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Germany joins in in 1969

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the tradition of candidates appearing together on television began in the late 60s. In 1969, Willy Brandt of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) challenged Kurt-Georg Kiesinger of the Christian Democrats (CDU) to a joint appearance on a news program.

Like many politicians before and since, Kiesinger balked at the prospect of sharing the stage with his opponent. The CDU leader at first rejected the offer, claiming that "it misbecomes a chancellor to sit on a chair and wait until he is allowed to speak."

Public pressure ultimately led Kiesinger to reverse his decision, and the program went ahead as a sort of joint press conference, with questions known to Brandt and Kiesinger ahead of the broadcast.

Willy Brandt, left, and Kurt-Georg Kiesinger

Kurt Georg Kiesinger, right and Willy Brandt started the tradition of TV debates in Germany

In 1972, the four party leaders of the Bundestag took part in West Germany's first televised debates, a series of three programs that included the leaders of all parties. An overwhelming 84 percent of the electorate watched at least one of the 1972 debates, once again demonstrating the high level of public interest that accompanies these exercises in democratic politics.

Debates among West German party leaders were also held in 1976, 1980, 1983, and 1987, planting a seed that would mature into the chancellors' debates of the 21st century.

TV debates have global appeal but UK the exception

In recent decades, the debate phenomenon has made rapid progress globally, with especially strong growth in the emerging democracies of Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Interestingly, one of the few industrialized societies never to hold a national campaign debate is the United Kingdom, despite longstanding British traditions like parliamentary debates and the weekly verbal jousting of "Prime Minister's Question Time."

So far the UK has only flirted with the idea of live debates. Earlier this year Conservative leader David Cameron challenged Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labor Party to debate "any place, any time, anywhere," though it remains to be seen if Brown will cooperate.

Although the existence of campaign debates suggests high-minded democratic ideals, in reality the history of these events has most often been characterized by petty squabbling.

In order for debates to happen, candidates must first agree to participate and self-interested politicians find many reasons to avoid them. In February, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to appear with his challenger, a satirical television show staged a faux debate with puppets portraying the candidates - the closest Israeli voters came to seeing their leaders onstage together.

Whatever the country, once politicians agree to participate, an intense behind-the-scenes tug-of-war ensues over how the debate will be formatted and staged. How many debates will be held, and over what period of time? How long will they run? Will the debaters be seated or standing? Will the subject matter consist of a single theme or be open to all topics? Who will ask the questions? Will the candidates be allowed to address each other? All of these issues, and dozens more, must be negotiated between the political parties and the debate's sponsor.

German debate formats slow to innovate

The original American debate format consisted of a panel of journalists posing consecutive questions to Kennedy and Nixon. All presidential debates in the US between 1960 and 1988 employed this format, which Germany's debaters continue to use today.

Edmund Stoiber, left, and Gerhard Schröder in a debate

The debate between Stoiber, left, and Schröder was the first one-on-one duel, since then there's been little change to the format

German debate formats have been remarkably slow to innovate, the key exception being the structural change in 2002 that resulted in a one-on-one duel between Schroder and Stoiber. The 2009 debates continue the tradition without significant changes, such as multimedia enhancements, mail-in questions or an interface for video-questions pre-produced by viewers at home.

The joint venture of public networks ARD and ZDF with private networks RTL and Pro7.Sat1 brings together four anchorpersons, each representing their own media network - and stealing time from the debate between the candidates. The debate will be broadcast live by the participating television stations, but there´s no online coverage: the networks agreed not to offer live-streaming and will only put up an online video after the debate has finished.

Other countries have more eagerly embraced format experimentation. America's lengthy election season gives US politicians ample opportunity to test their skills in a wide range of debate situations, including town halls, audience participation via social networking tools, debates online, thematic debates, and YouTube debates.

New Zealand successfully modified the YouTube format for its two prime ministerial debates in 2008, combining questions submitted by the public on video with follow-ups from a panel of professional reporters. This mixture achieved the best of both worlds: voter involvement plus the scrutiny of trained journalists.

No matter the format and no matter the country, campaign debates have shown themselves to be of great value to voters, imparting information about politicians and their positions in an audience-friendly way.

The challenge in Germany and throughout the world is to ensure that debates are responsive to the needs of citizens first, and second to the needs of political candidates and the media. After nearly 50 years of on-camera debates, this remains the key struggle.

Authors: Alan Schroeder and Christoph Bieber
Editor: Rob Mudge

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