TV Debates

Mirian Toidze

A Test of Readiness

In late July, upon being announced as the victor of the United National Movement (UNM) primaries, Davit Bakradze, in a manner characteristic of an experienced politician, challenged Giorgi Margvelashvili of the Georgian Dream, his main rival in the upcoming presidential elections, to a TV debate. Margvelashvili rejected Bakradze's proposal, declaring (absolutely logically) that no single candidate must be put in a privileged position and that each and every candidate must be given equal opportunity "to express their position." No matter in what format TV debates are conducted, at the end of the day, they will definitely benefit the nascent Georgian political culture.

A Political Process Turned into an Institution

TV presidential debates, often seen as the best means of exposing candidates' preparedness, have been practiced in the West for more than half a century now. Bearing in mind the rapid development of broadcast media in the United States as well as a democratic political environment that encourages competition, it is of no wonder that it was in that country that television was first used in the sphere of political communications. By 1960, the idea to invite the presidential candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties to a TV studio, something which would attract the attention of the traditional voters of both parties, had already ripened. It was estimated that such TV debates would attract from between 65 to 70 million Americans, a figure which was close to the record high number of viewers that watched the final game in the 1959 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Barack Obama-John McCain TV debate. 2008.

Since the groundbreaking John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon debate in 1960, TV presidential debates have developed into an indispensable ritual for many generations of American voters and now represent an integral part of US political culture. Today, a candidate not appearing in such debates entails dire political consequences; as media expert Alan Schroeder has said, evading presidential debates in modern America means trampling upon its social norms. If nothing else, the specific format of televised political debates are interesting because the candidates are placed in a studio left to face their voters, unable to rely on either their party apparatus or a team of advisors and consultants. In other words, it is a time of truth; candidates are required to show a profound knowledge on every important issue of the nation's life – from foreign policy down to such complex issues as health care and social insurance.

Elements of a TV Show

Televised US presidential debates traditionally reach a vast audience (the Carter-Reagan debate of 1980 was watched by a record 100 million American viewers) and the candidates are thus naturally keen to exploit some elements of the show. In the opinion of a number of US political scientists, John F. Kennedy, as the first "TV president," triggered the formation of universally demanded values for television, things such as celebrity, visual effects, a conflict of personalities, and personal glorification. Veteran American journalist Seymour Hersh said that when the one-time Hollywood mogul Joe Kennedy was orchestrating the election campaign of his son, he understood from the outset that the emphasis should be placed on John F. Kennedy's charismatic qualities: "his son should run for president as a star and not as just another politician." Consequently, viewers often consider these debates as a sort of TV show; an intellectual duel in which the decisive factors appear to be not the attractiveness of party manifestos, but rather the candidate's self-confidence, eloquence, telegenic appearance, and ability to convince voters.

Issues of Strategy and Tactics

Given their rivalrous nature and structure, TV debates provide the best opportunity for a candidate to reveal his/her personality and leadership qualities. Consequently, candidates constantly try to keep control over the process of the debate – over his/her own narrative, the tone of the topic discussed, and the arguments of their rival. The candidate has to figure out which topics will probably arise during the debate and to be ready to display a sound knowledge of those topics. He/she must answer questions readily and confidently, must be specific and thorough, and must not get distracted by or lost in his/her own rhetoric.

Given the limited duration of televised debates, Western politicians often use so-called one-liners – short, witty but substantive phrases intended to have an effect on the audience and destabilize a rival. The best examples of such one-liners have become part of the history and vocabulary of political science.

A Sense of Humor

It is a well known fact that the nature of television, as a medium of sharp intensity, does not favor agitated, noisy speeches. Therefore, calm but quick politicians who are able to make witty remarks during debates are highly valued. In the 1980 presidential debates, Ronald Reagan, nicknamed "the Great Communicator," frustrated the pathos of Jimmy Carter's rhetoric criticizing Reagan's social insurance program with the single phrase – "there you go again...." This well-delivered utterance caused laughter amongst the presenters and confusion for Carter. Four years later, the age of President Reagan became a subject of criticism for his relatively younger rival, Walter Mondale. In response to Mondale's attempt to capitalize on this issue, Reagan reacted sarcastically: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience..." In the opinion of many, it was this very quip that finally determined the fate of the Reagan-Mondale debates.


The format and rules of conduct for the US presidential debates have changed several times over the 50 years that they have been conducted. The initial format of a press panel involving three or four presenters in an empty, audience-less studio, was gradually replaced with the format of one moderator and an attending audience. This latter type of debate is known in the US as the town hall format because the first presidential debate of this kind was held between Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., and Ross Perot in Richmond's town hall in 1992. Clearly, the selection of the attending audience requires a cautious approach in order to avoid a hullabaloo from any attending party "enthusiasts" during the course of the debates. This format, however, fills the emptiness and adds stimulus for the debaters to directly address the voters and not the TV cameras.

Do Debates Influence the Final Outcome?

The John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon TV debate. 1960.

There is no clear-cut answer to this question, though surveys conducted right after presidential debates have sometimes shown changes in ratings. And yet, according to most popular opinions, the TV debates clearly affected the outcome of the Kennedy-Nixon rivalry. Interestingly, the first ever debate between Kennedy and Nixon, which was held in Chicago on 26 September 1960, was broadcast by ABC and NBC on both TV and radio. Radio listeners polled after the debate judged both candidates to have performed equally, with preference not given to either candidate. However, the verdict of television viewers was quite different. They believed that Kennedy had performed way better than Nixon. The majority of research and analysis dedicated to the Kennedy-Nixon debates arrived at an identical conclusion: the cause of Nixon's defeat (who before the debates had outstripped Kennedy in the ratings) must be sought in his inadequate preparedness and the fact that he was less telegenic than Kennedy. Some other details also worked against Nixon. He had stubbornly refused to wear makeup before appearing on television and, as a result, the Republican Party candidate looked pale and unshaven on screen. Furthermore, Nixon, clad in light grey suit and standing against a studio background of the same color looked, in the conditions of black-and-white TV, thoroughly unattractive. Wearing an elegant dark blue suit, Kennedy, in contrast, fitted the specifics of TV much better.

The Georgian Experience of TV debates

Nothing new and a waste of time – this is how the political debates occurring during the 2012 parliamentary elections shown on the Georgian Public Broadcaster can be described. The entirely bureaucratic title of those debates – "Debates between the Leaders of Qualified Subjects" – crushed any hope of intrigue and emotion from the outset. The presenter of the debates announced that their format was developed following "recommendations from USAID and experts (which ones?)," and envisaged the gathering of representatives of "political subjects" in an empty, lifeless studio. Under this format, the candidates were to answer questions put to them by a moderator within an allocated three minutes. It was this strictly enforced time limit that proved to be the main problem for the debaters: they either failed to finish their answers within the allocated time-span, falling victim to a deafening signal informing them about their time being up, or they finished their answers before the three minutes were up and were left waiting for the unpleasant signal to go off with uncomfortable smiles on their faces.

Equally devoid of intrigue was the boring rhetoric of those two debates: "Much has been done but there is still much to do" (Vano Merabishvili and Davit Bakradze from the United National Movement); "The United National Movement entered into a new contract with the population though they failed to make good on the promises given before" (Giorgi Targamadze of the Christian-Democratic Movement); "We will collapse the so-called budget, i.e. the coffers filled from misappropriating people's property" (Shalva Natelashvili of the Labor Party); "Has your life become the kind you were promised nine years ago?" (Kakhi Kaladze of the Georgian Dream coalition), and so on and so forth. In short, in the purely political component of the debates, we witnessed nothing more than what we had already seen numerous times before over the preceding years. Moreover, that format did not actually offer a verbal debate between the politicians or any challenge of ideas and positions as normally seen in other types of talk-show.

"Shows" by the Likes of Shalva Natelashvili

The Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan TV debate. 1980.

The only debater who once again added a certain degree of liveliness and spontaneity to the course of debates was Shalva Natelashvili. The long-time Labor Party leader richly saturated his presentation with elements of his habitual clownery: his first target of criticism was Bidzina Ivanishvili, who, as Natelashvili put it, "shut himself away in his armored-aquarium" [a clear reference to Ivanishvili's steel and glass residence] and refused to take part in the debates. Natelashvili demanded that a photo of penguin [Ivanishvili keeps penguins] – "that penguin which costs 18 million to be kept in Chorvila [Ivanishvili's native village]"– be placed on the empty seat that was intended for Ivanishvili in the TV studio. He then, more traditionally, railed against Mikheil Saakashvili who "burnt down many an aircraft's speedometer with his travels; spends people's money on introducing his grandma to the Sheik of Kuwait or Japanese Emperor Hirohito..." However, the poor result of the Labor Party in the 2012 parliamentary elections (a mere 1.24% support) showed that excessive theatrics in electoral discourse, populism, and other such antics mostly bring about negative results.

What Should We Expect from the 2013 Debates?

Amongst the five leading candidates in the presidential elections (Giorgi Margvelashvili of the Georgian Dream, Davit Bakradze of the UNM, Nino Burjanadze of the Democratic Movement-United Georgia, Shalva Natelashvili of the Labor Party, and Giorgi Targamadze of the Christian-Democratic Movement), one may witness the emergence of accidental alliances during the debates. For example, an expected target of Margvelashvili and Burjanadze will be Davit Bakradze, who will be blamed for "the destructions of a violent regime and the establishment of universal terror during the past nine years." Natelashvili, Targamadze and Bakradze, meanwhile, will probably focus their rhetoric on the unfulfilled promises made by the Georgian Dream during its parliamentary election campaign in 2012 and the flaws in the coalition's attempt to sort out relations with Russia. However, Nino Burjanadze will probably not be merciful in her criticism of the current government's favorite Giorgi Margvelashvili for "useless cohabitation." There is no doubt that "Lady Nino" will be extremely radical in her demands for the "restoration of justice" – this is the main trump card which she will exploit in order to win the hearts of the most irreconcilable segment of the electorate. As for Davit Bakradze, his direct targets will probably be Mr. Margvelashvili and Mrs. Burjanadze whose stances on the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 ("the chief culprit is Saakashvili") creates a direct danger of "Kosovoization" (how can we ask the West to support our territorial integrity if we ourselves say that Georgia started the military conflict? If that is true, then the separatist Tskhinvali government is the "victim" that requires support from the international community) and, consequently, strengthens the arguments of the Russian Federation and its proxies in the separatist territories of Georgia.


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