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Oppenheim: Debate Season Begins

At the Oppenheim's, it'll be lots of couchtime and popcorn for the first democratic debate this week.

Over time, broadcast television has lost some of its power. Except for the Super Bowl, we simply don't gather in front of our TV sets like we used to. But debates are still a big deal. In 2016, one of the Trump-Clinton debates was viewed by more than 80 million people – a new record.These first debates won't likely be in that stratosphere, but for serious voters, it’s a 'don't miss' event. As someone who teaches and studies broadcasting, I'm telling everyone, starting with my family, it's time to plunk down on the couch and tune in.

From my perspective, that obligation goes beyond Vermonters having a senator in the race. As Americans, this is our job. In the past few presidential cycles, it's become trendy to diss the debates as too show-biz, too rewarding of the candidate who grabs all the attention. But there's really no substitute for watching the debates live. Getting the condensed version on the news or online is at best an abbreviation. And these first debates set the stage for the road ahead.

That road – with rules established by the Democratic National Committee – includes 12 debates – 6 this year, 6 next. And with 20 participants in this first debate – it will be spread over two nights.

The DNC came up with a lottery-style method to avoid stacking the leading candidates in one night – but still, scuttlebutt says Thursday night is the stronger line-up with Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.

So it's not a perfect process, and fairness is hard to create. Candidates placed near center stage generally get more airtime – and it can be tough for the little guys to break through.

But in 2016, the DNC was criticized for not having more debates, a move that arguably favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. And Election Day will be here sooner than we think.

So I, for one, will carve out the time to watch candidates from the challenging party battle it out. It may be a lot of TV to watch, but it's an important way to make my own judgments before others in the media do it for me.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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