An experimental online “mashup” -- a build-your-own Democratic presidential debate -- attracted more than 1 million viewers in the last 10 days.
But one of the most popular participants wasn’t a candidate.
Four questions were posed to each of eight candidates, one question being a “wild card” posed by comedian Bill Maher. His questions were watched 42% of the time -- more than the others, which were on Iraq, education and healthcare and were posed by PBS host Charlie Rose.
Maher quizzed the hopefuls about topics including the Ten Commandments; marijuana legalization; the relative dangers of sugar, coal dust and terrorism; and the climate-changing effect 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 questions.
The clips were recorded two weeks ago and were posted Sept. 13 at debates.news.yahoo.com. Viewers can choose the candidates they want to see and hear, match them against a rival, 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 the weekend, 1.1 million people had visited. Of those, 429,000 were ages 18 to 34, according to data compiled by Yahoo. TV debates still get the biggest audiences. An Aug. 19 Democratic debate on ABC’s “This Week,” for instance, attracted more than 2.8 million viewers.
But organizers of the online debate say that its audience is more engaged and that the format puts the content in the viewers’ hands.
Maher’s questions were designed to catch the candidates off guard. He asked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, “Why should Americans vote for someone who can be fooled by George Bush?” He asked New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson if voters are fickle “spoiled brats.”
“People love the fact that they saw the candidates being genuinely surprised,” said the Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington. “That’s something that really works online -- the fact that their answers were completely unpredictable.”
The most viewed candidate? Clinton. Of all the video clips viewers watched, 35% were hers. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was next with 25%, followed by former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina at 13%.
After Maher’s questions, the subject of Iraq received the most attention -- 35% of the clips watched addressed the war. Healthcare was next with 15%, followed by education with 9%.
The Yahoo data show that women were more interested in education and healthcare than were men. Men were more interested in Maher’s questions than women were.
Audiences ages 35 and older were more interested in healthcare and Iraq, and those younger than 35 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 -- 41% of the video clips watched in the state dealt with the war.
The organizers are working to see whether 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.