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Viewers' questions are key

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV/Media Critic
Published November 26, 2007

Ask CNN's Anderson Cooper if he has any regrets about the first presidential debate organized with YouTube in July, and he'll cite one thing: The size of the videos on the TV screen.

He has heard the complaints about the snowman. And the gun nut. And the focus on the front-runners.

But ask anchor Anderson Cooper if he has any regrets about CNN's first presidential debate organized with YouTube in July, featuring questions to the Democrats submitted by the public through the video-sharing Web site, and he'll cite one thing:

The size of the videos on the TV screen.

"I kind of wanted the video to be seen full-screen as opposed to the way they were shown," Cooper said of the videotaped debate questions, which were shown occupying only part of the TV screen, as you might see them on the Web site. "I think there's an intimacy that you get when you look at the videos full-screen that was missing a little bit from the way we showed them."

CNN is in St. Petersburg preparing for Wednesday's YouTube-fed Republican debate at the Mahaffey Theater. The deadline to submit questions was Sunday, according to YouTube. Cooper was asked what viewers might see and hear when the GOP candidates take the stage.


How is this debate going to be different than the Democratic debate, based on what you learned from the first time around?

I think we're gonna have a lot more questions to choose from. We had some 3,000 at the final count last time. I think we're already at the 3,000 mark, and we saw a flood of questions coming in the last couple of days last time. So I wouldn't be surprised if we got above 5,000 this time, which is fantastic. It's great to get so many questions. It's sort of a bottom-up process. We let the questions and the general tone and the quantity of questions on any given subject sort of determine how much time we spent on any given subject. So it really does come from the viewers. They are the ones deciding which topics get the most focus.


Why do you think that you're seeing more questions now? Are people a little more comfortable with submitting a video since they've seen the first debate?

I think so. Once you actually see it and you see candidates actually answering questions from people, I think more people are motivated to get their questions in. We were getting questions immediately after the Democrats' debate for the Republican debate. People feel like they have a chance of getting their question asked and they see how other people ask questions, and it gives them ideas on how they want to ask them.


The critical interpretations of this debate were all over the map. Some people seemed to really like it; other people seemed to be very critical. Did you read any criticism that you felt was on the mark?

Some people were critical of the snowman question (a question about global warming was posed by a snowman), which was sort of an odd criticism. You could have had a question on global warming that started off with talking about CO2 levels and greenhouse gases and people's eyes would have glazed over. I thought it was a clever, funny way to ask a serious question, and if some people thought that cheapened the debate, I think they need to have a little bit more of a sense of humor about things. Frankly, the political process has been plenty cheapened long before the snowman video was ever invented.

There was criticism that all the questions should have been voted by people online, and I think all of us wish that would be possible. It's frankly just technically not possible, because you would have campaigns basically stacking the deck.


Some said the format didn't knock the candidates off their game enough; that viewers were getting some of the same answers that they would have gotten if you and Wolf Blitzer had come up with the questions.

I think knocking any of these people off their game is something which is a very difficult thing to do and which happens extremely rarely. If it does happen in a debate, it happens in little moments here or there. These people have made the same speeches and use the same sentences and been through so many town halls that there really are virtually no questions that they haven't already been asked. The question is, how aggressively do you follow up and how aggressively are they directing questions or comments at each other. That's one of the frustrating things about the way the process works.


Are we having too many debates?

You are hearing the same things at times. The last debate was interesting because clearly the candidates are sharpening their attacks on each other and focusing on one another more. It'll be interesting to see if that happens again. For those who are closely following this thing, these debates are interesting. ... We want an informed electorate. We all want to make decisions based on what we see of these candidates, and I'd rather see too much rather than too little.


Were there any debate questions you regretted airing?

No, actually. I wish we would have been able to get in more. I think we had some 40 questions in the laptop. ... I think it's great to have people from all different walks of life have the ability to ask questions to someone who will be the president, and to be able to do it from their living rooms or their bedrooms, and to ask it in the way that they truly speak. I think that's important.

[Last modified November 25, 2007, 22:43:51]

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