YouTube And Our Debate

Since the YouTube/CNN debate last night seemed geared to the YouTube generation, we thought it would be interesting to hear from the target audience. Eric Kuhn, a 20-year-old summer intern here at CBS, and a student at Hamilton College in upstate New York, filed his impressions for us. -- Ed.
When I first became a summer intern at CBS News a few months ago, I wondered if I could contribute to this blog. I was really interested in news (obviously) and politics, but how could I compete with the knowledge and background of all of our reporters (come on, they just hired Jeff Greenfield!) and producers? After all, I just turned 20 and about to enter my junior year at Hamilton College, where I am majoring in government.

But, after watching the YouTube Democratic Debate on CNN last night, I found my perfect blog idea, because it was about my friends and me. I grew up in a small town outside of New York City where political discussion is everywhere, whether it's about tree removal or national elections. While my friends certainly know who is running for president, sitting down to watch a two hour debate on a Monday night is not everyone's top priority. At first I thought only a few of my peers (like a friend who is interning for CNN) would watch last night's debate, but on the train into work today, with other commuting interns, everyone was talking about YouTube's presence on the debate stage.

To add another voice to the echo chamber, I thought the debate last night was historic. Historic, not in the sense of "old media" or even "new media." It was historic because it was "OUR media," the media of my generation. And you can bet that if we paid attention, CNN had our attention the entire time, due to the fast-paced, new format.

Let's face it: presidential debates can be boring to an average viewer my age not entrenched in politics. Previous debates are usually just a few men (and a woman) on stage in suits talking about complicated policies like Iraq withdrawal, healthcare, immigration, possible negotiations with Iran and more. As debate host Anderson Cooper said last night, what does a five-year-old know, or care, about healthcare? So a debate is a debate is a debate, but this debate had some flair and tried to target my generation.

I would say "Mission Accomplished." While the basics of the debate remained the same (candidates dodged the questions even though they were asked not to by some dude in his living room), in between answers were video clips from our home-away-from-home: Some of the videos featured music, some were silent and just had text, and some were even advertisements that the campaign made. While the questions – and the answers as well – were not necessarily out-of-the-park and groundbreaking (remember, CNN did choose only about 39 out of 3,000), the questions did add an element of "I am, like, so not bored watching this."

Further, Cooper tried to make sure the candidates' answers were short and to the point, just the right amount of time for this generation's attention span these days (because you could bet that while watching and text messaging during the debate to my other nerd friends watching, I also had my computer on, with iTunes playing).

But maybe the best part of the debate was that it seemed organic. Unlike presidential candidates who make Facebook and MySpace profiles to try and reach our demographic (read: inorganic), Cooper admitted that this debate was an experiment. I guess in many ways, our media is an experiment. It is new and going in thousands of directions no one can keep track of. The debate last night had a grassroots feeling (something our generation loves) and not the feeling that CNN was trying to be hip by using YouTube (something our crowd hates).

So CNN certainly got the hipness points last night, while the candidates hopefully got our eyes.

UPDATE: Late today, ratings for the CNN-YouTube debate revealed that it received the highest number of viewers ages 18–34 in the entire history of cable news debates.