YouTube, CNN aim to 'revolutionize' presidential debate process

Co-sponsored debates, to be held in July and September, invite YouTube users to submit "creative" questions for candidates to answer.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

In a joint announcement on Thursday, YouTube and CNN unveiled their plans for co-sponsored Democratic and Republican presidential debates that aim to bring the standard televised events into the digital age of mashups, remixes and viral buzz. Not only will video content from the events (as well as other CNN debates) be made available for sharing and distribution online, but the debate questions themselves will come in the form of videos sent in by YouTube users.

(Video: YouTube's call for submissions)

In a dial-in press conference, representatives from both companies explained the new process and answered questions from reporters--on hand were Jon Klein, president of CNN U.S.; David Bohrman, CNN's senior vice president and Washington, D.C. bureau chief; Chad Hurley, YouTube's CEO and co-founder; and Steve Grove, YouTube's news and politics editor.

All four projected eager enthusiasm that this new debate format would bring a more democratic angle to the way campaign dialogue is conducted. "This is how debates would have been done since the beginning of time, had the technology been available," Klein extolled. "It's really powerful, and it really brings the country to the presidential candidates in a very visual and contextual way," added Grove.

The first of the two debates, a Democratic debate to be held on July 23 in Charleston, S.C., and hosted by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, has been officially sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. A Republican debate will take place on September 17 at a yet-to-be-determined location in Florida, but has not been sanctioned by the party as the Republican National Committee does not officially sanction debates.

YouTube has set up a homepage for the CNN partnership, and users are invited to submit videos for the Democratic debate from now through the day before the event. About 20 to 30 will be handpicked by CNN for use in the debate; the YouTube videos will remain the primary form of debate content, but CNN's executives hinted that additional real-time discussion fodder (for example, blog or forum discussion) may be added on-the-fly if it's particularly relevant.

Apparently, the candidates have been supportive of the new endeavor--despite the well-known potential for verbal and physical gaffes to be made exponentially worse in the age of online video and viral sharing. (Just ask George Allen.) "We've gotten very warm responses from candidates who know they need to be on YouTube, want to be on YouTube, and know the eyeballs are there," Grove said.

Both CNN and YouTube are hoping the questions themselves are as notable as the candidates' answers, as YouTube users are encouraged to use audio and visuals in their sub-30-second submissions. "We are hoping to get questions that go beyond what we have ordinarily seen," Bohrman said. "We're not going to have anything obscene or anything that's inappropriate, but I think we will get very creative, very inventive questions that may have graphics or music or another multidimensional feel to it."

One reporter raised the fact that YouTube's relations with big media companies haven't been altogether friendly, primarily because of the video-sharing site's reputation as a hotbed for pirated content. The CNN and YouTube representatives encouraged listeners to set that aside--at least for now. "What this illustrates is that even as our conversations continue in the realm of copyright protection, we are able to find areas that we can work together," Bohrman commented.

"We're confident we're providing a new outlet for them for distribution," YouTube co-founder Hurley added. "We have thousands of media partners, and we're actively working to provide them new opportunities and develop new technologies that provide some choice: choice to control their content in the system, and choice to provide more promotional and revenue opportunities."

It's obviously a high-profile event for YouTube, but Hurley said that no specific technical measures have been put in place to avoid potential technical glitches. "We've been able to scale, and we've been quite successful with our growth because we've seen an architecture in place that's been able to sustain traffic," he said. "We're prepared."

The YouTube representatives also waved off concerns that uploading videos to YouTube might be too technically advanced for some interested citizens, thus making the process less "democratic" than it was being promoted. "It's simple as pie to submit a question no matter who you are," Grove said, "as long as you stop by the site and sign up for a free YouTube account."

But despite what that may sound like, CNN hopes that this isn't seen as a massive plug for YouTube. "We don't think of this as an advertisement," CNN U.S. president Klein insisted. "We think of this as an enormous public service."