No Audience? No Problem. A TV Debate Like Few Others Gets High Marks.

No Audience? No Problem. A TV Debate Like Few Others Gets High Marks.

On an eerie night in America, CNN held a two-hour debate on Sunday between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders that, in television terms, bordered on the surreal.

With no live audience on hand because of coronavirus concerns, there were no jeers or cheers disrupting the proceedings, no playing to the crowd by the two men onstage. The candidates, typically armed with punch lines and YouTube-able zingers to make the most of limited speaking time, had ample room to dwell on substance. Moderators had the grace and good sense to stay silent when the candidates questioned each other directly.

Add a sepia Instagram filter to the broadcast and viewers might have mistaken it for a snippet from the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, the last time that presidential candidates sparred inside a closed TV studio. (The similarities, it should be said, included the fact that the contenders onstage were a pair of white men, even if, 60 years later, two of the three moderators were women.)

Many journalists, impressed by the solemnity and substance of an evening where the candidates had a chance to engage each other on policy, quickly called for a prohibition on in-person debate spectators in the future. “It’s great not having a live audience for this,” the BuzzFeed reporter Rosie Gray wrote on Twitter. “They should never have one again.”

Even TV royalty agreed. “This debate without an audience is ten times better and more informative than any debate I have ever seen,” the producer Shonda Rhimes tweeted — high praise from the creator of the political thriller series “Scandal.”

Still, the unusual experience of watching Sunday’s debate was inseparable from the “Twilight Zone” backdrop upon which it played: the pandemic and its rapid mutation of American life.

This was the first presidential debate at which the candidates expounded on their personal hygiene. After Mr. Sanders volunteered that he was “using a lot of soap and hand sanitizer,” Mr. Biden, not to be outdone, said he washed his hands “God knows how many times a day.”

When one of the moderators, Dana Bash, asked the candidates about being in their late 70s, it was not the usual “can you handle the stress?” kind of inquiry. The implication felt darker, more urgent.

Politics is a physical endeavor of flesh-pressing and baby-kissing, but on Sunday night, the candidates kept their distance, from the moderators and each other. Their let’s-have-a-fair-fight greeting was not a handshake, but an elbow bump. The dominant visual of the broadcast — Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders on opposite sides of the screen, six feet of C.D.C.-recommended space between them — underscored the sense of uncanny.

There’s some irony that CNN — the network that helped pioneer “SportsCenter”-style political coverage, with play-by-play analysts, countdown clocks, and headset microphones for its anchors — would win admirers for hosting a sober, un-splashy debate.

Had the network had its druthers, and the coronavirus had not spread, Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders would have been jousting onstage at the Arizona Federal Theater in Phoenix, a concert hall that seats up to 5,000 people.

In CNN’s defense, its producers were only following tradition. Since 1976, when Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford debated three times in public, the presence of a live, reactive audience has gradually became ingrained in the DNA of televised debates.

Donald J. Trump, as a candidate in 2016, dominated his Republican primary opponents in part by galvanizing the in-person crowds, which often applauded his one-liners and drowned out his rivals’ retorts.

Mark Lukasiewicz, who produced 10 debates for NBC News and MSNBC from 2004 to 2016, said that he never proposed — and NBC News never considered — hosting a presidential debate without a live audience during his tenure there.

“All of us — the networks, the parties and the candidates — became invested over the years in making debates bigger and splashier every cycle,” Mr. Lukasiewicz, who now teaches at Hofstra University, said in an interview on Sunday night. “There’s no question that we let substance and content suffer.”

“It would be nice,” he added, if the audience-less CNN debate “showed us all there’s a better, simpler, older way.”

Maggie Astor contributed reporting.

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