News Networks Eager to Light Political Fires in Presidential Campaign

Stephen Colbert has had some fun over CNN’s plans to stream a feed of the Oct. 13 presidential debate using virtual-reality technology, but for the network — and the cable news business in general — it’s serious business.

Not only is this the first political event to get such you-are-there treatment, it comes as news networks hope to retain unprecedented interest in the 2016 presidential campaign. The record 23.1 million who watched CNN’s coverage of the GOP debate from the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Sept. 16, and the 24 million who watched Fox News’ coverage of the Republican debate from Cleveland on Aug. 6 are numbers that would have topped all broadcast primetime shows in premiere week, including football.

Can they last?

The answer has big implications for the news nets, which have sought higher ad rates for these live events, and for the political parties, which will be trumpeting the numbers to their own advantage.

CNN execs won’t predict the size of the audience for the Oct. 13 event, but they don’t believe the debate — the Democrats’ first this cycle — will approach the numbers of the first two GOP gatherings, what with no Donald Trump and a smaller field of candidates. “They were a huge anomaly in what is an unusual political cycle,” says CNN’s Andrew Morse.

That isn’t to say there won’t be interest. The Oct. 13 event will be the first time Hillary Clinton will engage with her opponents, chief among them Bernie Sanders. Even if he were to get into the race, Joseph Biden is not expected to participate.

Comparisons inevitably will be made to the 2008 cycle. The first Democratic debate then, on April 26, 2007, drew 2.3 million viewers for MSNBC. Interest built as the primary season turned into a historic race-to-the-finish between Clinton and Barack Obama, topping out at 10.7 million viewers for their final debate on April 16, 2008, on ABC.

Numbers in that range would help make the case that there is interest in the presidential race beyond the drama of having Trump on the debate state. It also would help make the case for higher ad rates. The New York Post reported that CNBC was seeking $250,000 for a 30-second spot for its coverage of a Republican debate on Oct. 28.

A small audience on Oct. 13, however, may fuel criticism that Democrats waited too long to get their debate season started, giving the Republicans a head start in messaging to a large audience. Already, there has been a debate within the party over the number of debates. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’M has championed the call for more than the six sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, suggesting the schedule is “rigged” and has left the party without the platform to match GOP attacks, but DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz isn’t budging. “We believe that six debates is enough,” she said recently, noting that in past cycles the number of debates had gotten “out of control.”

Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and former communications director for the DNC, says that the “shared goal for each party this year was to have enough debates that voters get to see candidates side by side, but not have so many debates where it becomes a matter of diminishing returns and takes candidates off the campaign trail. Whether any side has found the magic number is not for me to decide.”

Democrats expect Republicans to make noise if they fail to capture a large audience. But Alan Schroeder, professor at Northeastern U. and author of “Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV,” says smaller audiences can also be a benefit. “Should the Dems be worried if their audience is smaller? Not necessarily. Much of the news that emerged from the first two GOP debates has been negative. For every Carly Fiorina success story, there have been multiple accounts of how Trump/Bush/Walker/Carson failed to ignite. With 24 million people watching, any mistake gets magnified,” he notes.

CNN is pulling out all the stops to build suspense. It will live-stream the two-hour debate to CNNgo, and will air it live on CNN, CNN en Espanol and CNN Intl., with Facebook as a partner, as well as promoting it across the Turner networks.

Morse said that they “are using every tool at our disposal” to draw attention to the event, along with a Campaign Camper, an Airstream being hauled across the country with a video booth to record debate questions.

“I don’t think anyone could have imagined the cycle we are going through,” says Morse. “But clearly America is engaged, watching this election.”

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