I've long been disappointed by televised debates. The questions are vague; the answers are shallow sound bites at best and demagoguery at worst; and candidates rarely if ever connect with each other. Worst of all, hasty, extemporaneous speaking is nothing like the plodding deliberation in an office full of advisors. Therefore, staged debates are both bad at revealing candidates, and they are bad for estimating competence to hold office.
We have this new medium called the Internet; why don't we use it? Sure, candidates already have web sites, but I haven't heard of any interaction yet. Instead of debating on TV, the candidates for an office could debate online, point counterpoint. In a threaded forum similar to a newsgroup, they could speak directly to each other; they could carefully consider and research statements before posting them; there would be enough bandwidth for all registered candidates; and each could draw upon trusted advice. Voters could read candidates' own words in their own context without media filtering. Best of all, web debates could start right after nominations are set, and they could continue right through to election day, so there would be plenty of time to rebut rebuttals.
Such a forum would be open for all to read, but only candidates for the associated office would be able to post. Perhaps a parallel forum (mirroring the candidates' posts) could be created so the rest of us could hang our own comments on each of the candidates' discussion threads. Especially hip campaigns might monitor the parallel forum to pick questions and comments to answer or echo.
A national news organization like USA Today, Fox or CNN could reasonably host such debates for President, Senate, and House races. Local TV or newspapers might be just as good for hosting House races, and would probably be better for anything local. However, if no news orgs were enlightened enough to jump on the idea, then some public service org could do it.
News organizations could probably think of reasons even faster than I can. First, candidates have limited time; each could probably only keep up with one such debate. That means that the first host in the game will probably be the only host in the game. From a marketing standpoint, I'd expect the host to become the hub for all public interest in a set of races or the entire election, which positioning might perpetuate itself from election cycle to election cycle indefinitely. I think that the mere risk of a competitor stealing the show would motivate news orgs to act pre-emptively.
Why do they participate in staged sound bite contests? If I were a candidate (and I dream of being one someday), then I would prefer to give carefully considered statements, and I would relish the opportunity to explode my opponent's fallacies, propaganda and demagoguery. However, I already know that I don't think like most politicians, so I can't predict what others will do initially.
Maybe an aspiring host could shame some into participating in a few races. Also, there's usually one candidate in any race who sees an advantage to mixing things up. Once one takes advantage of a free forum, the other(s) are likely to follow. I expect that once the practice starts, it will become common, then customary, then obligatory. In other words, build it and they will come.