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MySpace Clinches Presidential Debate Deal

Social networking giant MySpace is turning up the political dial, unveiling a partnership with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to create an online portal that will include features like real-time streaming and polling.

The forthcoming site, MyDebates.org, marks the first partnership between the official debate organizer and any Internet company to augment the debates with Web functionality.

The site is slated for full launch a few weeks before the initial debate, which is scheduled for Sept. 26. There is no exclusivity clause in the agreement with the CPD, though MySpace told InternetNews.com that it expects it will be the only Web property to host live streams from the debates, owing to the "prohibitive expense" of the service.

"For the first time in American history, viewers of the debates will be empowered to watch the event in real-time online and review candidate responses on demand," MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe said in a statement.

The new site comes as the latest in a long series of initiatives that have aimed to recast the presidential election in a more interactive and engaging form, through the use of an emerging class of Internet applications. From the beginning of the Republican and Democratic primary races, each of the major candidates had profiles on Facebook and MySpace. YouTube partnered with CNN to host Republican and Democratic debates, while more recently, surrogates for the candidates have been sparring in debates in forums like Twitter and the site OpposingViews.com.

Now, in this election broadly defined by the concept of change, the ties between old-line politics and the world of Web 2.0 have gotten a little stronger.

In addition to live streaming of the three presidential debates -- as well as the one vice-presidential contest -- MyDebates.org will give users the opportunity to submit questions for consideration in the third presidential debate, which will be in a town-hall format.

A video archive of the debates will be available following their conclusion. The site will bookmark the videos to make them searchable by issue.

The CPD, a bipartisan, non-profit responsible for organizing debates, has largely been an outsider to the online world. It approached the New York office of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) 10 months ago for advice on how to take to the Web, BBH said.

"They didn't have a strong point of view on digital media," BBH's Chris Wollen, group account director for the project, told InternetNews.com. "We were an advisor for them on how to move into the new media space, taking into account their mission of voter education."

Wollen said that among the many social-media players that the CPD considered, the proposal that MySpace came forward with best matched their vision for an online debate portal -- that is, an environment where the issues are not obscured by a showy barrage of Web 2.0 gimmickry.

The move also may further encourage the perception of MySpace as a forum for more serious issues, away from the juvenile audience with which mainstream social networking sites, particularly MySpace, are often associated.

Niba Rubenstein, who manages public affairs for MySpace's Impact political channel, claims that the youthful knock against the site is a "cultural identity," cultivated in large part through its strong association with music. In fact, Rubenstein said that more than 85 percent of MySpace's users are of legal voting age.

Platform-agnostic politics

According to MySpace and BBH, the CPD wasn't looking for a partner to launch a cobranded online portal. The group retains complete control over how issues are presented on the site, and while MySpace will promote it heavily throughout its own community, the social networking player's principal role is to make the technology work.

"MySpace's piece of the partnership is less about the debates themselves -- we don't have any editorial control over how the debates are run," Rubenstein told InternetNews.com. "Our role is to create a suite of online tools that helps people take what they've learned in the debates and organize it and process it and decide who to vote for."

Without creating a profile, users can customize the site to select the issues that matter most to them, and then register their opinions.

MyDebates.org will make the streaming video through a downloadable widget, which users can place on any Web site, such as their Facebook profile or blog. Users do not need to have a MySpace profile to access the debate site.

"There's a pretty hard line between MySpace and the MyDebates world," Wollen said. "MyDebates is absolutely media- and social-network-agnostic."

During the streaming, the site will light up with "issue icons" as the debate topic change. Viewers will be prompted with multiple choice or simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down polling, which MySpace said will be designed to minimize distraction while producing real-time audience feedback.

For MySpace, a division of News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS) Fox Interactive Media, the new site continues what has been a year of escalating political awareness. In addition to Impact, MySpace has hosted a series of candidate "dialogues," partnered with NBC to build an election-news site, conducted polls and cosponsored with NBC and MSNBC a contest to send citizen journalists to the upcoming conventions.

The winners, one a senior in college and the other a 2007 graduate, were announced today. They will be issued handheld cameras and tasked with blogging and producing video content from the conventions, which will appear on MySpace's Decision08 site and, possibly, programming on MSNBC.