The Commission on Presidential Debates is no stranger to criticism. It’s been called insular, stagnant and more recently, it’s been accused of shunning technological innovation. Still, when October of a general election year rolls around, the three presidential debates CPD controls never fail to attract the largest audience of any other news events on the calendar. Some 63 million viewers watched the second to last showdown between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008. It’s not exactly the Super Bowl, but for politics, it’s pretty darn close.   

The CPD, which has organized and set the format for the general election debates since the 1988 presidential contest, recently released the 2012 schedule. But the commission still hasn’t decided what format the debates will take. CPD’s Executive Director Janet Brown tells C&E the board is weighing its options on that front, but she says viewers are likely to see something new. 

C&E: Are next year’s debates really going to look any different in terms of format?  

Brown: We haven’t made any of those decisions just yet. The big things will probably remain the same. So, the amount of time for each debate—90 minutes—and the fact that we’ll have some sort of equitable time division between foreign policy issues and domestic policy issues. What the board is working on and will be working on until early 2012 are the finer points of the format. Issues like sitting at a table with a moderator rather than standing at podiums, which lends a different dynamic to the discussion.  Fine tuning the details of how the town meeting debate might proceed. The objective is to continue to find ways to focus more time on important issues and to take the rules and limits away from governing the debate.

C&E You’ve seemed to resist integrating social media into these debates, which earned you some criticism in 2008. Does the commission see it as too gimmicky?

Brown: Technology is a delivery system, and it obviously delivers two ways. It delivers information to the public and hopefully it delivers information back to the candidates. The question is how do you use it around general election presidential debates in a way that enhances the conversation? Is it best to do that in the debate itself or is it best to do that around the debates so that it pushes the substance of the debates out to new audiences and encourages more conversation? There’s a lot being tried during the primary debates that is very helpful to watch and learn from. It’s one of the reasons that the CPD board has not made any recommendations about format so far. There’s much to be mined in terms of lessons from the primary. I think the objective of the CPD board is to create a season of conversation during which the debates act as four anchors. And then we can figure out how to best use technology to ensure we exploit the value of those four evenings.

C&E: There haven’t been real changes in format for a while now. Is the commission’s goal just to strip these debates of all bells and whistles?

Brown: I would argue that there has been significant change. It’s not dramatic, but it’s significant between 1988, which was our first year, and 2008. You don’t see the panel of questioners anymore. Since 1992, we’ve had a single moderator in charge. We’ve had several debates now where the candidates are seated with the moderator, which a lot of people think brings a more relaxed and comfortable dynamic to the conversation. All of those are changes that may be subtle, but I think they’ve improved the conversation. We need to figure out how you keep moving in the direction that those bits of progress represent. Innovation sometimes means simplifying. Our objective is to constantly remove any impediment to the public learning more about the candidates. Whether that’s getting rid of time limits or any bells, whistles, remote insertions—anything that basically takes away from trying to understand these candidates better. It may not strike people as being as titillating as “Dancing With the Stars,” but the feeling of the CPD is that to really have a substantive discussion, you need to really simplify it and focus all the time and attention on the candidates.

C&E: So we know Newt Gingrich wants a whole series of Lincoln-Douglas style debates if he’s the nominee. Any serious thought to lengthening your debates?

Brown: Not in a while. Ninety minutes appeals to us from a lot of different perspectives. It works in terms of television production and it fits the nature of the conversation.  It’s about right if the time is used well. In some of these primary debates, you don’t hear from the candidates for a while. I think if you use 90 minutes effectively by focusing on the candidate’s views and not on boundaries that cut into the train of thought, it works. Then you can use technology to find out how people felt about the debate, what was covered, what wasn’t and what they would like to hear more of. That way you use technology to drive the substance in the second and third debates because they are really expanding—the way a tutorial would—on what you covered last week in class.