No Audience? No Problem. A TV Debate Like Few Others Gets High Marks.

Mar 16, 2020 · 54 comments
Bob Parker (Easton, MD)
I remember sitting up listening to the Nixon-Kennedy debates on a small radio after I was sent to bed by my mom, and have probably watched every Presidential "debate" since. This was by far the most informative and effective. If the Networks learn anything from this debate, please structure all future debates w/o a live audience. These are not about ratings - they are about informing the public. How can we expect American to take our elections seriously if the media and political parties don't?
Kathleen (Michigan)
We’ve had enough reality TV! That’s how we got the current president. It is a cancer. Now we have reality TV for contagion. We are fed up with reality TV. It’s going to kill some people. IRL. The least they can do from now on is to have presidential debates be real debates. And presidential. Not reality TV. No more audiences, no more ridiculous questions. Enforced time limits. Cut off mikes if they go over. I’m pledging here and now to boycott any debates that resemble reality TV. To paraphrase the words of the movie, I’m mad as heck and I’m not going to take it anymore.
historyRepeated (Massachusetts)
This should be the style of debate every network agrees to between the final two candidates. With no audience, Trump can’t traipse in women Bill Clinton supposedly groped to intimidate his opponent. Trump can’t goad his throngs into cheering. He wouldn’t be able trash the moderators for fake news. In soirt Trump would have to do it alone, without props, without advisors, without without sycophants and cheat sheets. His words would echo with the reverberation of the spoiled word salad that they are.
Nathan Hansard (Buchanan VA)
It is crystal clear that having an audience is a bug, not a feature. Town hall style debates might have their place in normal times, but audiences per se should be gone forever.
sansacro (New York)
yes, we can see that there were only two white men on the stage. America of all races and both genders who voted in the primaries thus far put them there. Sorry, but I'm more interested in a candidate's vision and values than in the skin color or sex of a candidate. I hope that "white male" handwringing is not going to be a running parenthetical in all future coverage of a Trump/Biden runoff.
Emily Levine (Lincoln, NE)
1960s black and white TV was not and is not "sepia." We're talking mid-20th century, not 19th. Sheesh.
MJM (Newfoundland, Canada)
Who would have ever guessed - substance over spectacle the popular choice! Somewhere Walter Cronkite is having a chuckle.
Greg White (Los Angeles)
This is how every debate should be held. It was respectful. informative, and informative. The live audience aspect is simply reality TV trash.
Steve Bolger (New York City)
Cameras just stare. With no audience to read, candidates can focus on their positions. Internet essay contests might be more illuminating than campaign rallies too.
Don B (Ontario)
Lately and especially since the removal of an audience from events like this debate, late night talk shows, and Trump rallies, I have questioned the dishonesty behind performance politics. For example, as much as I seem to enjoy the performance of some late night talk show hosts, the cheering, hooting, and jeering that tends to annoy and cut off interesting conversation, has now given way to being unable to engage with them sans audience because their efforts now seem forced and even embarrassing. This is what happens when you take the audience away from the performer who needs it to breathe — which in Trump's case, it sometimes seems, literally. Denied his live minions or foils, unable to ad lib and provoke, Trump the performer unravels. His speeches are semi-coherent and full of errors. Politics ceases to be a show. What’s left is only the reality. The Biden-Sanders debate revealed a reality as well and I sincerely hope that the lesson is not lost on broadcast media. Imagine such a debate between Trump and whoever the Democratic nominee is.
Tom ,Retired Florida Junkman (Florida)
I watched the debate, start to finish. Two tired old men, it was funny to watch them duke it out. Joe Biden looked the best he ever looked, except for his eyes which appeared strangely glassy. Bernie seemed resigned to defeat, he was hoping for a Biden-breakdown, it didn't happen last night, it may not happen for a while, but deep down you know it's coming. Boring debate focused solely on the Coronavirus subject which no one knows about yet, we aren't sure how this virus infection will shake out, so they missed an oppourtunity to ask substantive questions on other concerns. And lets be real CNN was just throwing marshmallows at those two old guys, wait until someone throws a hardball to them. I didn't expect much more than that, they didn't want to hurt these guys.
JMMH (Midwest)
Most definitely - all debates going forward should be NO AUDIENCE! It was a positive watching and listening experience with answers to real questions without the interference from an audience. Please, Networks, approach the debates as a forum for all viewers to see our candidates in a thoughtful, genuine exchange of their ideas and plans and not a pumped up 'Saturday Night Fight'!
Madeline Conant (Midwest)
Having no audience is a huge improvement. Please never again have a studio audience for a presidential debate. Next let's make sure that moderators simply ask questions that cause the candidates to fully explain their positions on all the major issues. It is not the job of moderators to burnish their personal reputation by trying to make the candidates look bad or start fights. This is not reality television entertainment. It is not about the moderators.
PKR (Chatham, NY)
This year's debates were such a disappointment, given the very good field of candidates. Often, the questions were not relevant, candidates were instructed to give one-word answers, or were cut off at crucial points in their responses. That format should be abandoned. Sunday's format was far better. Hopefully, this will be the format for future debates - the candidates should insist on it.
Mike (Texas)
I agree with most of the comments here. But the response of media superstars like those on Morning Joe was telling: the debate was too long, they said. Bernie and Joe spent too much time debating old votes, they said, ignoring especially Biden’s eloquent and substantive remarks on the virus, on the economy and on foreign policy. [i bet Biden’s remarks influenced Trump’s change of tone today (although they could not stop Trump’s compulsive lying)] Morning Joe etc seems addicted to bread and circuses and snappy one liners, both their own and others’. It is this sort of media that turned debates into political gong shows. Here’s hoping that future candidates demand audience-free and substantive, un-Morning Joe-like debates.
Ralph (Brielle, NJ)
I agree that this debate format was superior. The one thing that would allow all debates to be better would be to limit the number of live microphones to ONE.
No more Trump (Denver, CO)
It was a startling and welcome contrast with the circus-like debates that came before. I was impressed by the civility both men showed as well as the good grace of the moderators. Serious times require serious discourse but modern media still tilts too often toward the Roman Circus. Thousands of years later, the audience thrills to see blood in the sand and the media too often accommodates them. I fault the DNC for agreeing to the formats, as the disarray actually played to Trump's advantage. That we have emerged with some clarity is thanks to chance and not to any leadership from the DNC.
Fran (CT)
I found this debate to be the best so far. It was a debate - not a shouting match, not being interrupted by a rude audience, not a show. And, couldn't you just see the focus and seriousness on the faces of Biden and Sanders. They were talking to each other - sharing common ideas and differences. I found it to be much more engaging, interesting, and informative. I would vote to have no more live audiences for presidential debates.
Debra (Chicago)
I just do not understand why all the debates were not managed this way. There should never have been 8 people on stage, and forcing everyone to say yes or no. They should have been split into 2-3 debates of random combinations, so that candidates had more chance to talk.
A (FL)
Because that is way too rational and the media conglomerates will have nothing to do with that type of soundness. It’s bad for business and it’s un-American.
John (Sims)
No audience was vastly more conducive to civil debate. I would also suggest having the candidates sitting around a table with moderators. The country should see a polite informed conversation
SheWhoWatches (Tswwassen)
@John Not so sure about that--sounds more like a tea party.
PW (White Plains)
“Moderators had the grace and good sense to stay silent when the candidates questioned each other directly.” Although, and I confirmed this by watching it a second time, the moderators interrupted Biden (several times) more than they did Sanders (hardly ever).And didn’t step in when Sanders rudely interrupted Biden, something Biden was too polite to do.
kanecamp (mid-coast Maine)
I agree that the absence of an audience made the whole thing an actual adult endeavor. However, I'm puzzled by the fact that, while Joe and Bernie were 6 feet apart, the three moderators were huddled together and cozy.
Susan Rasmussen (Tennessee)
Time limits adhered to and thoughts about crisis management and potential moves shared. Minds may have been changed.
Bill (New Zealand)
This was a rare silver lining in our otherwise dire current circumstances. Leave the live audiences for the late-night talk shows. Elections are serious, and there should be some gravity to the proceedings of a debate. I just wish the late Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer were still here.
Serious (Seattle, WA)
@Bill My wife and I were just yesterday talking about how we miss both Jim Lehrer and, especially, Gwen Ifill.
Steve M (Boulder, CO)
That one-to-one debate with no audience was a beautiful thing. Two people having to concentrate on just their opponent and responding with substance, instead of pre-digested sound bites. Absolutely brilliant. This should be the required format for presidential debates going forward.
Jake (Texas)
No studio audience! Think of all the money lost! Tickets for the debate in Charleston averaged $2,500.
Kathleen (Michigan)
No more audiences for debates, ever! I was close to not even watching this one because the others were just a disgusting waste of time. All I learned was which candidates were best at producing sound bites. The town halls were so much better at informing. We still have those if we want an audience and the audience there has a purpose. Unless the decision-makers do that, we should plan to boycott them until they will.
mutineer (Geneva, NY)
Mark Lukasiewicz and the rest of these so-called producers have got to be kidding. To say they have never even considered a no-audience debate is well beyond reckoning. On its surface it is un-fixably stupid. But beneath the surface, it's something more: un-fixably greedy. I'm nobody but it has been achingly clear to me since forever that audiences were a negative aspect at debates and were, ultimately, the way in for the unscrupulous. A candidate that could pack a hall with rude and obnoxious followers who hijack the event and morph it into a professional wrestling match. Great theater, high ratings, big money , bad feelings and misinformation. You want to see a virus, this is the one to track. The "follow the money" virus. Trumps them all.
La Resistance (Natick MA)
Imagine a debate where Trump has to answer on substance. Delicious.
Eric (FL)
Trump only has slogans and one liners. Everything thing he say is to get a pop out of the audience. He'd never show for an closed TV studio debate.
Jim S. (Cleveland)
And consider that a real debate is between two people or two sides. Not between seven or twelve. So next time, when dealing with multiple candidates, put the candidates in soundproof booths, ask them all the same questions at the same time, and let them respond in a given time to be played and critiqued later. And of course, there is no need for an audience for this. And no need to get into who is placed in what order, how tall somebody is or isn't, etc.
SheWhoWatches (Tswwassen)
@Jim S. One sometimes wonders the point of any of it in light of each and every candidate having websites with detailed information on all their views.
Marc (Cambridge, MA)
I almost never watch the debates because I feel they have devolved into media sideshows where the highlight is how effective candidate A was in attacking candidate B. This debate actually sounds interesting, perhaps I will check out the video. But I would love to include something else in these debates. The moderators should ask the candidates basic questions about US History and the Constitution. You know, like what we require of immigrants when they apply for US citizenship. How do you think some of these candidates would fare? Our current President would be a deer in headlights; although I am sure he would later claim he was being mis-quoted or that the history books were written by Democrats.
Viking East (Midwest)
Absolutely amazing. It NEVER occurred to Lukasiewic that substance and content were important?. And he is a Dean of Communications program at a University 15 miles from the center of the Media universe. What does that tell you about the future of journalism. Cronkite and Murrow are spinning.
PeterG (Oakland,CA)
Yes, no audience anymore, ever. Candidates had to concentrate on answering the questions and discuss actual policy rather than pandering to a raucous audience. I suggest Presidential debates be like this only use non cable station so everyone can view them. Three debates and rotate thru ABC,NBC,CBS. Interview panel picked by equal input from both Candidates teams; negotiated. Hopefully questions will be as relevant as these were to give the voters an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the Candidates. Civil,respectful discussion of issues is the goal of a debate. This format would provide the best opportunity to do that.
SheWhoWatches (Tswwassen)
@PeterG I don’t see the point of Party debates at all. They should be reserved for the general election. There are myriad ways to check up on the primary candidates, starting with their websites.
Ben C (Tampa, FL)
Really? It never occurred to them that a live audience interfered with the substance of the debates? Right...
Marty Smith (New York)
Can we learn that no-audience debates between just 2 people are the only truly successful debates?
RFM (San Diego)
It was the closest thing to a debate I've ever seen in presidential politics in the past 40 years. May the networks please give up the Roman circus approach in the future. If this had been done 4 years ago, we'd have a lot more ventilators and a lot less polarization.
Zareen (Earth 🌍)
Biden should commit to nominating Professor Anita Hill to the Supreme Court (which will make Clarence Thomas resign, I hope). If Joe refuses, he will not receive my vote. Bernie 2020
Harvey Green (Santa Fe, NM)
@Zareen Get serious. So you'll be sitting out or voting for a third-party or other candidate, or for Trump? C'mon, man. All those actions are votes for Trump in one way or another. And I am a Sanders voter.
Marc (Cambridge, MA)
@Zareen I am sure Ms. Hill is a highly qualified lawyer -- but her potential for scoring revenge points against conservatives is not a valid criteria for nominating anyone to the Supreme Court. Let's be rational here.
Harvey Green (Santa Fe, NM)
@Zareen One other thing: Thomas isn't going anywhere. He doesn't have to until he wants to or fate intervenes.
Leabharlannai (US)
I wonder why Bernie was asked about his Cuba comments but Biden wasn't asked about his son's business in Ukraine? Biden is the frontrunner and if he wins, he'll debate Trump. If Biden is to debate Trump, isn't Biden the one who is going to be grilled over his son and Ukraine? Aren't these debates in preparation for the ones with Trump?
Cecily (NJ)
Are attending debates ticketed, for money? Debates should always be without an audience. This way, we can suss out the substance of what the candidates are truly arguing and thinking. Last night’s debate was refreshing— no extras from the peanut gallery. If someone is making money off ticketed sales for a debate... shame on them.
Merzydoats (Maryland)
What are the chances that this will become the default? Imagine what could have been learned about these candidates in their national debates if they were focused on cogent responses instead of audience pleasures?
Eva (NYC)
Wouldn't it be the grown up thing to do always? It is not a clowns platform. It is a presidential (serious, not for entertaining) thing.
Kristen (Brooklyn, NY)
Please do this for the general election debates. Trump debating without a live audience would be exposed for the child he is.
Ed Addison (Hillside, NJ)
Here here!
czarnajama (Warsaw)
@Ed Addison Hear, hear!
Marc (Cambridge, MA)
@Kristen Absolutely true. What was so striking about Trump's recent national address where he spoke from his desk was how uninspiring he is when not in front of a live audience and he has to present something of actual substance rather than taunts. I would hope also that debate moderators throw in some basic US citizenship questions dealing with US History and the Constitution. You know, to see if the candidates know as much about our country as an immigrant has to when applying for US citizenship.
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