Let’s Redesign The Presidential Debates, By Modeling Them On The NFL

Because no matter who you’re voting for, it’s clear, this format isn’t working for anyone.


The first televised debate presidential happened in 1960. It was the infamous Kennedy/Nixon debate in which the modern media-centric president was born. According to 60 Minutes founder Don Hewitt, Nixon won on the radio and Kennedy won on TV. And, as history has it, TV was the medium that ultimately mattered.


You can watch that whole historic hour on YouTube. And I’d encourage you to check it out–not just because I actually think Nixon’s sulken face actually looks better on television than the stories tell it–but because you’ll realize that we haven’t redesigned the debate format since the rise of television. The only fundamental difference between the way the debates are televised now vs in 1960 is that of image quality–color and HD.

Compare that evolution to the modern day NFL. What was once a blur of black and white blobs running on the field has become a slow-mo, crystal-clear, TV-timeout ballet of modern efficiency. The presidential debates actually could learn a lot from the NFL, pads optional.

The Moderator Needs Real Power … and a Whistle

Jim Lehrer never stood a chance. Armed with only a microphone and a timer, he stood in the way of two of the most influential men in the world, each jockeying for the most powerful seat in the solar system. Obama didn’t become president by shutting his mouth on the podium, much like Romney didn’t build his investment empire by letting the interns have their way.

So Lehrer got steamrolled time and time again. Any semblance of organization went out the window as Obama and Romney alike both reiterated the same points. And the debate was ruined. In the NFL, the referees are in a similar position. Wearing little to no protection, they’re making calls on linebackers twice their size, men powerful enough to punt their puny, striped figures right out of the stadium. Each play, when the refs reset the ball, they’re basically lion tamers, pulling dinner from the pride’s teeth.

Still, no one questions the NFL referees (okay, except on a challenge). Unlike Lehrer, they have actual power. They can penalize a team for breaking the rules. Lehrer had no such penalties in his pocket. There’s no policy to, say, take away a closing statement if a candidate speaks out of turn.


There’s also a key difference in NFL broadcast and debate broadcast in this way: While tantruming coaches and players are constantly mic’d, it’s the ref and the ref only who holds the microphone to call a penalty, with a voice so loud that it takes an entire stadium to drown him out. Lehrer needs, at minimum, a mute button to make his calls.

Where’s Our Secondary Layer of Information?

The NFL has pushed real time computer graphics to pretty incredible levels. I don’t just mean player lineups or that strange Fox robot–I mean the technological breakthroughs that overlaid the first-down line right on the field, like magic. Or the new graphics packages we’re seeing that actually draw circles around the player making the catch a la Madden on Xbox 360.

Our debate broadcast has absolutely none of this secondary information. No doubt, it’s a purist approach modeled on the good old days, but there’s a whole lot we could be doing with a few Chyrons inserted now and again.

For one, we could see objective facts. If a candidate is going to cite a study in their debate, that study would be filed with an independent broadcast panel first. Its pertinent information could be condensed into bullet points–think of them as player stats–that could come on screen at the appropriate time. If this study doesn’t exist, or if certain figures are out of whack with a candidate’s claims, this could be mentioned, too.

Last night, Obama made a claim about creating 5 million new jobs, for instance, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites 4.6 million. (A slight difference, but a worthwhile fact check.) Or when Romney constantly alluded to his new budget plan, the American public would see on screen that this budget plan hadn’t been filed with the debate board (or any public entity), so it wasn’t ever a citable source in the first place. False start penalty. 5 yards.


But there’s other, simple information that could be conveyed as well. How about a simple outline of a candidate’s points for reference? How about an evolving “things we agree and disagree on” venn diagram? TV no longer forces us to take people at face value–not when we have computer graphics.

Shorter Plays and Halftime

Maybe it’s a testament to my attention span, maybe it was all of the repetitive arguments, but an hour and a half is a long time to watch two men in drab suits respectably argue with one another. That may be how things work in Washington, but my living room isn’t the Senate floor.

The NFL actually has the opposite problem, and they’ve solved it. There are only about 11 minutes of actual action in any game, so the rest is replays and commercials. Any televised game is chiefly veneration for or marketing of those 11 minutes of action. And that 11 minutes of action is, of course, broken into plays–chunks of intensity that only last a few seconds. And still, the worst NFL game all season will probably be more interesting to watch than any of these debates.

What if our candidates weren’t given two minutes (or obviously much, much longer) to answer absurdly broad questions? What if our questions were kept more specific, and accordingly, our candidates were given even less time?

If we got the average response down to a 10- to 20-second sound bite, the debates would be a lot more watchable, and they’d be far more interactive. They’d be actual debates, maybe, rather than short speeches.


But here’s the kicker to the whole plan: Don’t tell the candidates what the topics will be ahead of time, and randomize the questions.

On any given Sunday, players must deal with unpredictable adversities. Injuries. Weather conditions. Inappropriate sexting. It’s amidst these adversities–moments that no speech coach can prepare you for–that the best teams are separated from the mediocre. It’s when a running back pockets 300 yards on a bad knee. It’s when a crafty trick play catches a more physically talented team by surprise. It’s when a quarterback gets hit, shakes off the blitz, and miraculously puts the ball in the endzone.

Let’s watch two candidates slug it out on a battlefield full of mines, then let’s be so fanatical about what’s said that we need a halftime just to crack a beer and recuperate. Let’s bring real competition back to the presidential debates, presented, not to make the candidates comfortable, but for an audience to enjoy, comprehend and, above all else, get excited about.

[Top image: Getty]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach