Everything annoying about elections gets progressively worse with time. The cost increases exponentially, the TV spots get dumber and more numerous, and the media coverage is shallower and more shrill. Personally, I find fewer things about the process to be more annoying than the endless primary season debates. And even compared to 2008, the number of debates feels out of control this time around. The news networks understand that it's essentially impossible to criticize them for having too many debates – Having the candidates talk about issues and take positions is a Good Thing! – and the entire election is one big Sweeps Week for TV news. "Special" events like debates always provide a ratings boost, although having fifty of them tends to make each one a bit less special.

The fallacy, of course, is that viewers are getting anything of value out of debates in which the candidates rarely answer the questions, usually stick to well rehearsed, soundbite-style remarks, and generally act like a bunch of high schoolers vying for Homecoming Court. Despite that, debates reel in the viewers. For example, Saturday evening's ABC debate posted "solid ratings" of 6.3 million viewers even though it had to compete with NFL playoff games. It's a positive sign that people want to tune in and watch these circuses in an effort to learn something about the political process, I suppose.

Wait. Are those ratings actually encouraging?
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The media reports on that subject lack context. What does 6.3 million viewers (or even 7.6 million from the highest rated of all the debates, back in December) mean?

First of all, it's obviously not a big number in the context of the voting-eligible population as a whole. It's also not a very big number in terms of…anything else on TV, really. That NFL playoff game opposite the Saturday debate had an audience literally five times larger (31.8 million). Even that highest rated debate with its 7.6 million viewers pales in comparison to the most pedestrian primetime offerings on the networks. The weekly Nielsen Top 25 shows that the current 25th-ranked show on TV is something called "Rules of Engagement" on CBS. Last week this show – a rerun episode, no less – got 8.5 million viewers. The best debate ratings can't even post the kind of ratings that get network shows cancelled. It's hard to feel great about our prospects or the level of political efficacy among the electorate when interest in what is supposedly the biggest of all electoral contests is so dismal.

Pessimistically, we could look at this as yet another indicator of how dumb, immature, and uninterested the average American is.
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We'd rather watch a blowout football game or some lowest common denominator CBS series than to watch debates among presidential candidates. Then again, without defending the viewing habits of the American public it is reasonable to suspect that people are intentionally avoiding these debates because there is so little content. The GOP field is a clown car of full of knuckleheads and they're revealing almost nothing of substance during the debates. Even if I feel like I should be watching, my brain understands that I'm not going to learn anything useful from doing so. So we see misleading reports of "good ratings" suggesting enthusiasm for or at least attentiveness to the election. Debates might deliver higher ratings than the network's available alternatives, but that's hardly an impressive claim.

26 thoughts on “MEH”

  • As a recovering political junkie I can attest that I watched not one of the GOP debates. I read or listened to the highlight reels and can honestly say that I missed absolutely nothing for not having seen them.

    The GOP hasn't had a new idea in 30 years. The slight semantic differences of the same supply sided nonsense we've been sold for two generations doesn't matter a bit. Other than the buzzwords of the day like "Job Creator", it's all the same old claptrap.

    I'll listen to the debates when Barack and Mittens square off but I expect very little. There is no honest debate in Washington DC anymore, only carefully coached soundbites that won't give the media any fodder.

    I'm a bit ashamed to not be actively participating but my sanity can't take the mind fucking it took during the 2008 election.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Why would anyone listen to the Martians called GOP? I don't want to go back to the 18th century where the GOP lives. I listened to some of the debates among and later between the Democrats. Obama was pathetic, but people did listen. They elected the weakest guy of the three.

    Bottom line, candidates talk and audiences don't listen. It's a perfect marriage.

  • The main reason for so many debates is probably that they are so damn cheap to produce. The candidates show up for free, the moderators come from the network, and so one basically has to rent, staff, and light a big hall. Even /Rules of Engagement/ must cost more than that per episode. So the "good ratings" are good compared to the cost of the production. Not so good compared to the number of people who should be politically minimally informed (not that they would be if they watched the debate, of course).

  • "Rules of Engagement" is the pinnacle of TV mediocrity. I have seen it. It is better than any GOP debate imaginable.

  • Just wait until Gingrich wins the nomination and fulfills his promise to challenge Obama to 7 x 3 hour actual debates!

    Two real points:
    1) Um, we have TV. This isn't the 1800s when you had to go see a candidate in person; we get coverage of them 24/7.
    2) Anyone who hasn't figured out who they're voting for is a complete moron.

  • @Ifv- I still find it a shame that pretty much everyone has pre-decided their vote. In this case, think it's warranted but do crave some new blood in Washington that isn't totally led astray by big money. Maybe my non-existent children will benefit.

  • The debates are the 11th Level Jedi Mind Trick of Obi-wan Obama. "You will have 300 debates and say stupid shit and then campaign and do interviews and be taped doing and saying more stupid shit like, ""I like to fire people"".

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I didn't watch any of the Republican debates

    Watching sociopathic, knuckle-dragging, cave-morons standing around in suits, trying to incite live and TV audiences to new heights of stupidity, ignorance, and callous disregard for other people in the country and the world, won't enlighten me – only disturb me.
    They all pretty much say the same carefully scripted things.
    And they all scare the living shit out of me.

    And if I want to know their policy positions, and plans for America, I'll borrow a book from the library on what the world was like before Newton, Galileo, and "The Enlightenment."

    If I want to be terrified, I'll rent a horror movie.

    If I want to laugh, I'll rent a comedy.

    And if I want to see people from another planet yapping with, and at, one another, I'll rent "Star Wars" and FF to the bar scene.

  • I've watched several of the debates. Similarly, I also like attending Beckett plays and listening to the question-and-answer segments (if I can make it through the talent sections) of Miss Universe pageants. It's not the same to hear the gaffes and idiocies replayed on the news as to be there, hearing them for the first time, live. And some times the questioners are the idiots, as when they call for a "show of hands." You can't write moments like that.

    But it's not surprising more of the electorate don't tune in. You have to have knitting in your lap, or some other project, to endure the commercials and mind-numbing talking points to make the unscripted buffoonery worth the wait.

    I'd initially wanted to take off on Ed's mention of the COST of campaigning and how it relates to the daily raft of letters begging for money in my email. And how the remedy is now seen as "term limits" rather than campaign finance reform. But that can wait for another day…

  • I once participated a table-read for a friend's Rules of Engagement spec script. I was the Patrick Warburton character. And I was less wooden than Mitt Romney.

  • Nobody is interested in these debates because the debates are a waste of their time. If I want to see a bunch of slimy, insincere assholes pandering, lying, and mudslinging to garner political favor… well, I get enough of that every damn day at work. No need to watch a teevee show dedicated to it.

    The 'debates' are a joke, and their ultra-loose moderation would not be tolerated in any formal debating forums. Those times when a candidate just goes completely off on a tangent of verbally assaulting one of his/her fellow debaters? That happens all the time on these teevee political 'debates'. It would get their asses ejected from any respectable, REAL debate.

    It's not that people don't care about the political process, it's that they recognize when their fucking time is being wasted. And sensible people don't waste their fucking time on mindless, scripted drivel.

  • Monkey Business says:

    My primary problem with the debates is that there's been approximately 3,217 of them, and not one candidate has said a single thing of substance. After the first dozen or so I just couldn't raise the appropriate level of anger at the sheer stupidity of virtually everything everyone on stage was saying.

  • Debates are popular with the nets for the same reason reality shows are popular: zero-cost programming.not really fair to compare them to a football game or a sit-com, bc both of those costs millions per hour to deliver. candidates should start requesting an "appearance fee" to show up; that would go a long way toward eradicating the virus.

  • @S, don't forget that airing the debates apparently counts toward their and their affiliates' token "public interest" duties under their licenses.

    What I find the most hilarious event of this silly season is Gingrich attacking Romney for his private equity work through Bain Capital. Considering that the GOP's platform is essentially vulture capitalism for the US (sell off productive assets to cronies, abuse the rank and file, fill your pockets out of the organization's lifeblood, and when it all goes bust in a smoldering heap, count your money and walk away believing you've done G-d's work), Gingrich is cleverly using one point to send two messages to two markets: an endorsement of ideological purity for the idle rich, and paternalistic concern trolling at the poor.

  • @Nunya: "The GOP hasn't had a new idea in 30 years."

    I think it's more accurate to point out that they haven't even had any old ideas in 30 years. they've been distilling their fantasies down to the Coor's Lite ("just like watery piss, but now even less filling!") that is the modern Reaganist Party orthodoxy. As with the hard-core Leninists (and some theoretical mathematicians), the fact that their beliefs have no observable relation to actual reality is a feature, not a bug.

  • johnsmith1882 says:

    i haven't watched a debate since 2004, when kerry mopped the floor with w bush and exposed him as a fraud, only to read in the papers and see on the tv the next day how the debate was 'dead even'. and i wouldn't watch these clown car debates unless i was paid a hefty sum, for mental trauma endured. it could almost be argued that the low ratings for these debates are actually indicative of an intelligent and politically savvy nation, not wanting to waste its time on these knuckleheads, but of course that isn't true.

  • It would be interesting to design a research project to analyze the relative buffoonery of primary debates when only one side is having primaries to what we see when both sides are choosing their candidate as was the case in 2008. I would hypothesize that it is greater when you just have one side choosing an opponent for a sitting president, but I wouldn't even know where to begin in operationalizing buffoonery.

  • Well, I never watch the debates, so maybe I'm a dumb, immature, uninterested American…

    …..But for me the campaign season is one long, numbing stream of content-free bullshit, lies, distortions, and pie-in-the-sky promises that never seem to be kept. And besides, who "won" these debates is never determined on substance–it's all about how they looked, or whether they flubbed their lines and said something stupid or inappropriate, or whether they did something embarrassing (the "Dean Scream!").

    And let's face it–the Repub debates have been one very bad reality show…complete with the requisite Asshole (Newt)……

  • What the other guy said. The cost of the debates is as close to zero as makes no difference. Something that delivers mediocre ratings for zero cost is a big win for the networks.

  • Whats the Point says:

    People discussed/answered my primary question: what is the point of the crappy repetitive debates (free programming/big profit/viewers). Is it stupid to ask why journalists seem to refuse to tell the Dick Heads why they never answer a question or why the answers never appear extemporaneous or anything new/something I haven't heard before?

  • For some perspective, what fraction of the electorate actual heard the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Most of them just heard or read soundbites relayed by the 19th century equivalent of Youtube, the newspapers.

    According to Mark Evanier, Lincoln probably sounded like Mr. Haney on Green Acres. This is based on a Lincoln impersonation recorded on a wax cylinder by a famous 19th century Lincoln impersonator, so there's a good chance it's true.

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