The intro was schmaltzy. The orchestral score, Survivor-esque. The graphics looked tacky and Charlie Gibson tried (unsuccessfully) to manage both folksiness and gravitas as ABC News treated its Pennsylvania debate like an old-fashioned prize-fight.
By now it’s been widely reported that everyone except David Brooks — pundits, columnists, the average American TV watcher — considers the debate a low point in journalism. What no one has said, though, is this: In addition to being horrible news coverage, ABC’s Pennsylvania debate was really bad TV. I’ve watched a lot of bad TV in my life, and this might have been the worst. So. Boring.
I get the attempt: ABC wanted to make the debate more like daytime talk shows. God knows they’re popular. It was trashy, sure, and deplorable, but not near where it needed to be to make good television. Since no one ever has or ever will do trash TV better than The Jerry Springer Show, here’s a primer on how ABC can wring better, more Springer-esque entertainment out if its maligned debate format.
If you’re going to drop bombshells, you gotta hear the explosion. Audience reaction is key. Whooting is a plus, but it has to sound spontaneous.
Fat suit and/or blackened teeth
Physical abnormalities give the home audience a topic of conversation (“Lookee how fat Hillary is,” or, “Hey, that part-black feller’s missin’ teeth!”) when the candidates try to steer the discourse to snoozers like righting health care.
Bad graphics and junky-looking set
The producers did all right here. The set had a tacky velveteen quality and the graphics could have been made with the Hewlett-Packard I had in college — a nice counterpoint to the whiz-bang chicanery and haughty issues-based analysis of CNN and MSNBC. Conspicuously lacking, though, were chairs light enough for the candidates to pick up and hurl at one other.
Guests who can contradict certain assertions are key. You ask Barack whether or not he condones the actions of the Weather Underground, you better have someone backstage — preferably a fat person or someone missing teeth — willing to say, “I don’t know why Barack gotta lie about how much he loves blowing up things. He do that allllll the time.”
Is Chelsea really Bill’s?
Another one they got half-right. Watching Gibson flail around saying, “The audience is turning against me,” was fun. The trick, though, is to get the audience heckling the guests, not the host. •
More shows ABC’s political team can learn from:
Hell’s Kitchen Lesson: Berating debate contestants is funnier when delivered in a British accent peppered with profanity by a dude with cartoon hair. (Fox, Tuesdays, 8 pm)
Moment of Truth Lesson: Insipid, irrelevant questions are given gravitas by pressure lighting, the Boom-boom-boooooom of timpani drums, and weepy family members. (Fox, returns May 27, 7 pm)
America’s Next Top Model Lesson: As audiences tire of the same old format year after year after year, you have to overexpose your sexually ambiguous, cross-dressing runway coach to keep people happy. (CW, Wednesdays, 7 pm)