Presidential debates draw viewers

Ratings strong but will auds stay tuned this fall?

Jon Stewart is riffing on them. The presidential campaigns are grousing about them. But viewers are still tuning in — especially for the Democratic debates.

The 2008 presidential race is already reaching a record for sheer number of debates and forums, and the schedule will accelerate this fall when the news networks have more than a dozen scheduled before a single vote is cast in Iowa or New Hampshire.

But the question is whether viewer interest will be sustained in the primary debates, which have never been the focus of so much intense coverage, especially when the programming competition gets tougher this fall.

“Our biggest concern is we don’t want gimmicks or the production to get in the way,” says Phil Alongi, NBC News’ executive producer of specials. He believes that the two debates he’s producing for MSNBC in September and October will have the added grist of a renewed debate in Congress on Iraq as well as new legislation on No Child Left Behind.

Despite a hiccup in August, the debate ratings have remained strong, despite the relatively few fireworks from the crowded, cautious field.

MSNBC’s coverage of an AFL-CIO forum at Chicago’s Soldier Field drew just 960,000 viewers on Aug. 7, less than half the 2.5 million-plus viewers who watched the CNN/You Tube Democratic debate in July, CNN’s Democratic Debate in New Hampshire in June and Fox’s Republican debate in South Carolina in May.

The first debates on network TV started sluggishly with the Republican matchup Aug. 5 on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos (2.2 million), but the Democratic followup Aug. 19 drew nearly 2.9 million viewers — a 41% increase from what “This Week” drew on the same morning last year and the most to tune in to a debate thus far.

Neither debate topped the ratings for NBC’s competing “Meet the Press,” which aired Karl Rove’s exit interview against the Democrats.

This year’s primary debates have delivered more viewers, earlier in the process, than any election season in the past decade. All figures are significantly higher than debates held much later in the process in the 2000 and 2004 cycles.

“It suggests extraordinary interest in the campaign,” says CNN political director Sam Feist.

So far, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and ABC News have hosted nine debates and forums, not including forums like those held by gay cabler Logo.

CNN, FNC, MSNBC and CBS have 14 scheduled between them between Sept. and January — not to mention the local forums, like a pair of AARP-sponsored events in Iowa to be televised by PBS, or the Democratic forum to be held by Univision on Sept. 9.

MTV and MySpace.com just added another slew of dates to the fall schedule with the next iteration of its “Choose or Lose” franchise.

Those involved in the campaigns have expressed their weariness at the sheer number of events.

“I’m fatigued,” said one Democratic operative. “Anyone who has been following it hears the same topics and the same answers, and the positions aren’t changing.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton was the first to try to limit her schedule, by saying last spring she would commit to debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee only. The DNC began sanctioning debates in 2004 to give Democrats an easy out when various interest groups come calling.

Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign took a more drastic step last week, saying he would severely cut back on the number he’s willing to attend.

“Unfortunately, we simply cannot run the kind of campaign we want and need to, engaging with voters in the early states and February 5 states, if our schedule is dictated by dozens of forums and debates,” wrote campaign manager David Plouffe.

For the debates this fall, the nets are looking for ways to bring original voices into the discussions and to knock the campaigns off their talking points.

Part of the problem for the networks is the sheer number of candidates on the podium, and the nature of primary debates themselves.

“You’ve got too big a field now, so you’re not really getting down to the difference between candidates,” says GOP strategist Jennifer Millerwise Dyck. “Then they don’t want to rip each other apart in front of the primary voters. The strategy in most cases is to do no harm — and that isn’t an exercise in informing the public.”