As CNN's Anderson Cooper put it to viewers, "I'm going to host it, but, basically, it is going to be your questions and your YouTube videos the candidates are going to have to sit through and watch. So make them creative."
The Time Warner-owned network is expected to make an announcement this week about the format of the first Democratic National Committee-sanctioned debate, asking users to upload their questions to YouTube with the promise that several of them will be put to the candidates that evening.
It's the latest example of the digitizing of the 2008 elections, where campaigning includes not only YouTube but social-networking sites and even fringe technologies such as Twitter. The site has created a political section titled YouChoose, and virtually every candidate has a YouTube channel -- Mitt Romney, for example, has uploaded 172 videos in four months.
"I don't want to get hyperbolic about it, but it's a good first step," said Pete Snyder, a political pollster turned CEO of New Media Strategies, an Arlington, Va., online-marketing and word-of-mouth firm that recently was acquired by Meredith Corp. "The debate format, period, doesn't work well. If injecting user-generated content into the mix makes it more lively or connects these politics and brings it down on a level to real people, it'll work."
Former South Carolina Democratic Chairman Joe Erwin, president of Hill Holliday's Erwin-Penland, Greenville, S.C., praised the move. "YouTube and Google really reflect the changing way we communicate with each other," he said. "They reach a demographic and younger crowd that need to get more energized."
He did, however, acknowledge that motivating youth on the web, as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean did four years ago, didn't lead to votes then, and the internet's ability to get young people to improve their traditional unwillingness to vote is still unproved. But he was hopeful that one cycle later, a lot has changed. "While we don't know yet if they will vote, we should take every opportunity to engage these people and have media more reflective of their lifestyle," Mr. Erwin said. "If politics is going to reach them, having alliances with these new media is critical."
The Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins is less convinced the YouTube component will indeed bring the voice of the common man into the debates -- it's still likely to be the activists who upload their questions, he said -- but suggested it might be a smart tack to bring more interesting human stories to what can be a painfully boring broadcast event and a regular ratings cellar dweller.
"The main benefit is a production benefit, more than anything else," he said. "And it might spark some interest in an event otherwise buried or just covered or watched by people who always watch that kind of thing."
Still unknown is exactly how CNN will work its own user-generated-content play, i-Report, into the debate, but the network has not been shy about embracing a new distributed media mind-set when it comes to political and election coverage.
Earlier this year CNN announced it would allow anyone to syndicate its debate coverage, side-stepping a controversy that plagued NBC News when it refused to let bloggers and other websites air pieces of its debate coverage. And during the 2006 midterm elections, CNN hosted a blogging party with such names as Wonkette, Huffington Post and Fishbowl DC.