An experimental online “mashup” — a build-your-own Democratic presidential debate — attracted more than 1 million viewers in the past 10 days, many of them young people drawn to the interactivity of the Internet.
But the most popular participant was not a candidate.
Comedian Bill Maher, who asked one of four questions posed to each of the eight candidates, attracted viewers 42 percent of the time. He quizzed the hopefuls about the Ten Commandments, marijuana legalization, the relative dangers of sugar, coal dust and terrorism, and the climate-changing impact of cows.
Yahoo, HuffingtonPost.com and Slate.com conceived the format as a way to give online viewers the ability to build a debate with video blocks of each candidate answering different questions on education, health care and the war from PBS host Charlie Rose. A “wild-card” question came from Maher.
The debate was taped two weeks ago and the three Internet sites posted the video on Sept. 13. Viewers can choose the candidates they want to see and hear, match them against a rival, ignore those who don’t interest them and compare and contrast.
“We started off doing this as a public service,” said Neeraj Khemlani, vice president of programming at Yahoo and producer of the debate. “It was in my mind, ‘Let’s go and try to help undecided voters.'”
As of this weekend, 1.1 million people had clicked on the debates. Of those, 429,000 were between the ages of 18 and 34, according to data compiled by Yahoo.
Passive television watching is still the preferred method for most debate viewers. An Aug. 19 Democratic debate on ABC’s “This Week,” for instance, attracted an audience of more than 2.8 million.
But organizers of the online debate say its audience is more engaged and that the format puts the content in the viewers’ hands.
On average, each mashup viewer watched 4.4 video streams for a total of seven minutes, an unusual amount of time on the Internet, where clips on the YouTube video-sharing site typically run two minutes or less.
Maher’s questions were designed to catch the candidates off guard. He asked Clinton, “Why should Americans vote for someone who can be fooled by George Bush?” He asked Bill Richardson if voters are fickle “spoiled brats.”
“People love the fact that they saw the candidates being genuinely surprised,” said Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington. “That’s something that really works online — the fact that their answers were completely unpredictable.”
The most viewed candidate? Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. Of all the video clips viewers watched, 35 percent were hers. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was next with 25 percent, followed by former Sen. John Edwards at 13 percent.
After Maher’s questions, the subject of Iraq received the most attention — 35 percent of the clips watched addressed the war.
Heath care was next with 15 percent, and education followed with 9 percent. The health care numbers could increase because Clinton released her plan for universal health care last week, potentially driving up interest in the subject.
The Yahoo data shows that women were more interested in education and health care than men, who were more taken with Maher’s questions.
Audiences age 35 and older were more interested in health care and Iraq, and those 35 and under focused on education and the wild-card question.
In Iowa, which is scheduled to hold the first contest of the presidential election season, viewers showed the most interest in Iraq. Forty-one percent of the video clips watched in the state dealt with the war.
The organizers are now working to see if Republicans will agree to the same format. Another wild card question perhaps?
“We have to decide that because obviously the element of surprise only works once,” Huffington said.
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