All the elements are in place this evening on Fox News Channel for a political free-for-all: Two separate slots – one at 5 p.m. and one starting at 8:50 p.m. and lasting until 11 – will be devoted to 17 different Republican candidates for president of the United States, with a total of five different anchors ready to grill them at different times.
Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum are among the politicians vying to have their voice heard, but Fox News producers want to keep things orderly. “Everyone will know what the barriers are,” said Michael Clemente, executive vice president for news at Fox News Channel, in an interview, “and if they get past them, we’ll just have to remind them.”
Will the vociferous Trump be able to hijack the proceedings? “No” said Clemente.
Fox News Channel doesn’t need much to entice its core viewers to watch the event. But the circus-like atmosphere that has swirled around it, owing to such elements as a swell of support for Donald Trump’s candidacy to the sports-fan like bout of commentary about which candidates get to appear in the primetime debate slot, seems certain to bring a wider group of viewers who may not watch Fox News every day.
In an interesting twist, Facebook will provide data about the issues receiving the most attention from Americans on its social network, and Fox News will use that information to help frame questions, said Clemente. He envisions using information about what people in Texas care about to inform queries to people like Ted Cruz or Rick Perry, he said. Or producers may use an individual’s take on a certain topic – say, a Pennsylvania man’s view of fracking — to help add color and nuance to a question. Fox News’ Shannon Bream will be available throughout the evening to discuss the Facebook data and what it suggests.
For Facebook, the debate represents a chance to burnish political credentials. In research conducted last year, Pew Research Center found that about 39% of all people in the U.S. and about 49% of people who have Internet access got news about politics and government from Facebook each week. “Bringing people on Facebook into the debate is a unique opportunity,” said Andy Mitchell, director of news and global media partnerships at Facebook. The company is talking to a range of news outlets about helping supplement political coverage, Mitchell said.
Viewers will no doubt be watching to see if the candidates break loose from time strictures – one minute to respond to an anchor’s question, thirty seconds for a rebuttal – and instead take on a rival in more direct fashion. Clemente acknowledged such moments make for great TV, but said his team wants to keep things on track so that everyone gets a chance to explain their positions on issues to the broader audience.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot,” he said, “but a minute is a long time to answer a moderator. It’s a fairly long amount of time if you have a concise enough thought about it, never mind 30 seconds for the rebuttal. It’s hardly a tweet, you know what I mean?”
Fox News will count on anchors who Clemente said won’t be waylaid but any candidate in the mood to preen.
At 5 p.m. Martha McCallum and Bill Hemmer will moderate. The pair played a significant role in past election coverage, said Clemente, and “are a pretty integral part of our election coverage.” In primetime, a trio – Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly – will grill 10 candidates. “With 10 people on one side, it helps to have at least three rock-solid anchors,” said Clemente. One can field chatter from the control room while another is moderating a portion of the debate, he said. “For one person to do it would be a monumental task,” he added.
Fox News will make good use of the audience expected to tune in, airing live versions of many of its mainstay programs between and after the debates. Bret Baier’s “Special Report” will air after the first debate ends at 6 p.m., followed by Greta van Susteren’s “On the Record” at 7 p.m. Baier’s show will air live from the site of the debates at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, while van Susteren will hold forth from Washington, D.C. Fox News will feature live hours with Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity from Quicken Loans Arena after the second melee.
“I think it will really be an event,” Clemente said of the night.