Voters’ education programs on TV such as Harapan and Kandidato have added to the hype of this year’s electoral process, urging voters to take a closer look at candidates and make the right choice. But do these programs really inform the viewers about the candidate’s platforms, or are they just tawdry shows looking to boost the networks’ ratings?

Last December 2, ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) pitted presidential candidates against each other in Harapan: The Presidential Forum at UST. It was the first of the Harapan series hosted by broadcast veteran Ted Failon. It was succeeded by Harapan: The Vice-Presidential Debate held at La Consolacion College last March 21. When viewers displayed both positive responses and violent reactions online, a third Harapan was slated later that month. Unfortunately, the series’ third installment was cancelled on the same day it was supposed to air due to the no-show of a number of candidates who cited conflicting schedules.

In the cancelled show, the contenders would have faced each other in pairs, what ANC commentators referred to as a “tag-team” set-up: presidents alongside their vice-presidents up on the podium. This would have shown the candidates in a different light, since the previous debates and forums featured only contenders of the same position.

Meanwhile, Kandidato, GMA’s presidential profile series, has been running since March 3. Mimicking a job interview, the show focuses on putting one candidate in the hot seat per episode. What is marketed as “television’s toughest job interview” has three veteran journalists on its selection panel: GMANews.TV editor in chief Howie Severino, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) executive director Malou Mangahas and news anchor and Kandidato host Arnold Clavio, who dish out the hard questions that would surely make any candidate sweat.

Originality and God’s theater

ABS-CBN’s Harapan has been appreciated by the audience because it allows voters to compare and contrast each political candidate on the spot. It also gives them the opportunity to interact with the candidates through an open forum.

The changing format of the debate segments also offer variety compared to regular university debates, pushing the candidates to think on their feet and display grace under pressure. The show also features “Pulso ng Bayan,” which enables people from far-flung areas to participate in the discussion via satellite while also taking part in the simultaneous survey that projects each candidate’s believablility rate, based on the audience’s vote.

A noticeable difference between Harapan and Kandidato can be seen in the production, with the former being livelier. Complete with a marching band, a musical ethnic group and majorettes, it almost borders on the rabelaisian, giving the informal feel of a barrio fiesta or bayle. Ironically, this hinders the audience from hearing the speakers’ answers.

The atmosphere of the vice-presidential debate could be likened to the fanfare seen in noontime shows. Although this was meant to capture interest, it seemed to remove the formality of the forum and reduce the gravity of the issues at hand. But then again, this may be the Filipino’s way of relieving the pressure the election period has brought on.

There were also moments in the vice-presidential debate where the candidates seemed to be more interested in bashing each other rather than discussing their platforms, perhaps fueled by the audience rooting for this type of exchange.

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The venues, being schools, has a big impact on students, most of whom are first-time voters. Addressing the problem of the youth’s indifference to the political scene became the underlying message of the debates, and the forums served as grass-root information vehicles for these first-timers.

‘Presidents for hire’

On the other hand, Kandidato’s strong suit would be its presentation of the presidential aspirants for what they truly are—job applicants. The audience is thus given the opportunity to witness how an interviewee promotes his self as well as see the interviewer’s role to make sure that the interview goes beyond a self-serving facade. Most of the questions asked by the panel are the same with each candidate, aside from a few strays. Other than that, the program produces an objective interview every time it airs.

Its multiple-camera set-up makes the program distinct. It enables the audience to observe both the panel and the candidate’s reaction. However, every focal shift is accompanied by bothersome sound effects, which may make the viewers pay more attention to the accentuated movement onscreen rather than the substance of what the candidate is saying.

Moreover, like Harapan, Kandidato threatens occasionally to become entertainment, not information. It tends to go for the lowest common denominator—a great soundbyte that is neither here nor there—in the process, sacrificing content and critical thinking.

All in all, engaging the audience and helping them realize the power of their active participation in the electoral process are the main objectives of the two programs. Harapan and Kandidato try to provide information without bias as they present political aspirants to the electorate, allowing the people to evaluate their future leaders and decide who is credible, who is not, with mixed results, of course.

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