The Republican YouTube presidential debate will air live tonight on CNN at 7 p.m. It will mirror the Democratic debate from July, allowing anyone in the world to submit video questions to the Republican presidential candidates. Out of the thousands of submissions, CNN will air around 40.

CNN and YouTube are both truly wonderful inventions. The former is a 24-hour cable news channel with reporters around the world gathering information transmitted to a state-of-the-art studio, which digests footage into clips for news segments that are then broadcast around the world. YouTube, on the other hand, allows users to upload videos of anything they want and compiles the videos for viewing. You can search for footage you want to see or just look at the most viewed or most discussed video of the day. Thus, what gets viewed is completely democratized. It's called YouTube because you choose. But is it actually a good idea to merge these very different platforms?

This presents a fundamental conflict between the new media and the old media. While the broadcast media must appeal to the largest audience possible because it depends on ratings to make money, YouTube can appeal to the narrowest niches and demographics and still be successful because there is something for everybody and everyone is not forced to watch the same thing.

Moreover, during a CNN/YouTube debate, who should decide what videos get shown? Should it be the CNN editorial board or the average Joe on YouTube?

What happens in practice is that when solely the CNN staff decides what videos end up on the air, they seek out videos that ask questions they would have posed in the first place. This allows the presidential candidates to respond with their same dull stump speech answers that everyone has heard a million times and avoid directly answering the question.

The same incentives exist for journalists to pick out gotcha questions like, "Wait you said 'this' back in 1985, but now you're saying 'this?'" And questions that aim to cause conflict like "Senator X, do you think Senator Y is qualified to be president?" although neither is very informative about the candidates' actual policy positions.

Even if journalists select the questions, there are still advantages to questions coming from the mouths of actual voters rather than journalists themselves. For example, it's much more difficult to tell a cute lesbian couple that they can't get married than it is to tell Wolf Blitzer.

And what if YouTube videos could just be voted on by the broader public and CNN had to broadcast the most popular videos? The criticism here is obvious: The questions would tend not to be very substantive. The questions the public is interested in, especially the disproportionately young public that uses YouTube, will tend to be along the lines of "boxers or briefs?" rather than agricultural subsidies. The solution may well be to have journalists choose some of the questions and have YouTube users pick the rest.

But at the end of the day, if questions are going to come directly from voters, unfiltered, why have CNN act as a middleman at all? Basically what you'd have in this case is a high-tech virtual town-hall meeting. There has already been an online-only debate with unfiltered questions produced entirely online through a partnership between Yahoo! and The Huffington Post Sept. 12, and more of them should be produced.

If CNN is willing to experiment with YouTube videos, it or other networks should also be willing to experiment with other debate formats. Why is the norm for only journalists to be asking questions? Do they have any special expertise in public policy? Not usually.

It might be nice to have a debate where the questioners actually know what they're talking about. There is no reason a debate can't be devoted, for example, to economic policy, and have it be hosted by a panel of actual economic policy experts. This might be boring to some viewers, but it would really give at least those deeply interested in politics a feeling for whether presidential candidates have a good handle on the issues.

In addition, the existing time limitations for debates are far too restrictive. It's unreasonable to expect a candidate to be able to give a substantive answer to a question in barely more than the time it takes to ask it. When this is required, the candidates inevitably resort to mostly meaningless focus group-tested talking points that can be spit out quickly. Why can't the candidates be split up into smaller groups? This would give candidates much more time to articulate their positions meaningfully.

I applaud CNN for trying to break out of the established debating format that is, let's admit it, pretty boring to watch. But if CNN is willing to take this first step and allow questions posed by YouTube, it should follow up with more substantive and interesting debate formats.

Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and economics.