Formal debates aren’t the only way news organizations can help voters meet White House potentials.
ABC News, which will televise a debate among Democratic candidates Thursday night, will today launch “Around the Table,” a series of televised meetings between three voters and one of the Democratic presidential candidates, who get to converse around a dinner table. Voters can ask the Oval Office hopefuls questions in a more personal setting. ABC News anchors and correspondents will moderate the discussions.
The first episode features Byron Pitts of “Nightline” moderating a talk between three voters and Beto O’Rourke of Texas at his home in El Paso. It will air Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. eastern on ABC News Live , the news unit’s streaming operation, and will then be available on demand via ABC News.com and ABC News mobile and OTT apps. A version of the conversation will air on tonight’s broadcast of “Nightline” as well.
“This is casual. It is conversational. The talking points are not planned out,” says Katie Nelson, ABC News’ executive producer of news content, in an interview. “The conversation ebbs and flows as the candidates and the voters choose.”
ABC News tests the format as many news organizations are working intently on presentations for a younger audience that isn’t interested in seeing traditional news anchors spar with politicos from behind lecterns and tables, or mired in the context of a larger debate with multiple candidates jockeying for time. The leaders of all three broadcast-news operations have vowed to give viewers more on-the-ground coverage of issues and the people to whom they matter most. Speaking at a conference in June. ABC News President James Goldston vowed not to let prevailing narratives that build up on social media or in other public conversations overtake daily reporting on the 2020 election. Doing so, he added, would represent “a great disservice to the audience.”
Viewers will get to see candidates answering questions that are much more personal and less reliant on the biggest issue of the ongoing news cycle, says Nelson. In the talk with O’Rourke, she says,”one of our voters is a 21-year-old student at Texas Tech, and is one of triplets. He is aware of how his parents have sacrificed to put him and his siblings through school. He put it in a real way about what it means to him and his family, and how hard it is.” The conversation, she says, isn’t the sort of thing one might hear at a rally or town hall.
The O’Rourke pow-wow also includes a 36-year old evangelical Christian who runs a non-profit that helps refugees and immigrants,a and a 62 year-old retired grandmother whose parents were born in the U.S. and Mexico. She calls herself “politically homeless.”
“We see this as a way to try to talk to real people,” Nelson adds. “We know we can get stuck in the rut of the daily grind.” The productions are a joint effort by ABC News’ political, digital and “Nightline” teams.
Senator Cory Booker will talk with three voters at a restaurant in Newark, NJ, in a conversation moderated by Linsey Davis at a time and date to be announced. The voters include a nursing student with four kids and a grandchild; an Iranian-American pre-med student at Rutgers, and a 48-year-old dairy farmer. ABC News plans other broadcasts in the future.