TV Networks Likely To Push Back Against Republican Debate Demands

Republican Debate Fox News Ratings
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The nation’s big TV-news outlets are likely to push back against many demands by the Republican National Committee to change the nature of the big televised debates among the party’s candidates for President.

In the wake of a debate televised last week by CNBC that got many of the candidates riled, the various campaigns have begun to express a desire for greater control of the process. A letter to various networks scheduled to broadcast debates over the next several months looks at everything from the length of time given to each candidate to on-air graphics to the temperature of the room.

Two people with knowledge of the thinking at different networks suggested many of the demands could be shrugged off. To give the RNC or campaigns too much say in how candidates are shot by cameras, described in on-air biographies or questioned by moderators would be tantamount to ceding control to the people being covered by the news outlet, these people said.  Because many of the debates won’t be telecast until next year, there is also some hope at the networks that the RNC and the campaigns, upset about the CNBC event, will cool down.

TV networks and politicians have jockeyed for decades about Presidential debates and the kind of exposure the candidate receive. But the needs of an unforgiving 24/7 news cycle and the transformation of the debates from a public-affairs service for viewers into mammoth ratings generators for the TV networks have changed some of the dynamics behind the scenes.

“Candidates and networks should neither be fully in control.  One seeks status and scoops, the other control and predictability,” said Allen Louden, chair of communication at Wake Forest University, where he teaches classes in Presidential rhetoric. “The process, to inform voters, should be a balance of gaff and position papers mixed with some human interaction and spontaneity.”

Fox Business Network and The Wall Street Journal will host a GOP debate on November 10, featuring FBN anchors Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo along with Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker. CNN is slated to host one from Nevada on December 15. Fox News Channel will host one in January, ABC News, CBS News and CNN will all host one in February and Fox News will host another in March. The RNC said late last week it had decided to suspend its participation in a debate scheduled to be broadcast by NBC News and Telemundo in February, citing complaints about how CNBC handled its broadcast. In a statement, NBC News called the decision a “disappointing development,” but said it would “work in good faith to resolve this matter.”

On Sunday night, representatives from a number of the GOP campaigns met in Washington with attorney Ben Ginsberg to talk about crafting a joint letter to the networks outlining their concerns. The meeting did not include the RNC, which this cycle has tried to exert more control over the debate schedule and format.

Should some of the campaigns’ demands hold sway, the balance could be undermined, suggested David Bohrman, a former Washington bureau chief at CNN. TV networks typically strive to be reasonable in how they handle debate productions, but ceding control to campaigns of on-screen graphics is “absurd and a non-starter,” he said.  The debates “are really for the voters,” to show how candidates think and how they react, he said. “They are not really for the journalists. They are not really for the candidates. I would say no and I would just walk away from a debate if it came to that.”

The RNC and the campaigns may need the televised debates more than the networks need the one-time viewer eyeballs they draw.

The next GOP debate, slated to be broadcast by Fox Business Network on November 10, will not be affected by the current brouhaha, according to a person familiar with the network’s plans for the debate. Fox Business has already issued a set of parameters for the event, which will give candidates 90 seconds to answer questions and 60 seconds to respond to something, if warranted, as opposed to the 60 seconds/30 second rule that has often been the norm. The policy would give candidates ample time to talk about a particular issue, this person said.

One of the reasons why Republicans might be angered by current debates is the nature of trying to pin down a candidate early in the campaign process, said David A. Caputo, president emeritus and professor of political science at Pace University in New York. The moderator of a debate is trying to pin a candidate down on a particular issue or provoke an interesting response, the academic said, but candidates want distance from issues so they aren’t pigeonholed as the field narrows. In early debate, “if you notice, nine times out of ten, the question is not answered or it’s answered in such a way that it is critical of the question and the person who asks the question,” said Caputo. “It’s to be expected.”

The sheer number of Republican candidates has also created a challenge, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at University of Southern California. Assuring each candidate has equal time would be next to impossible, he suggested, but as the field of viable prospects winnows, there may be less reason for candidates to feel snubbed. “At a certain point there will be three or four candidates in the race instead of 13 or 14, and most of these problems will go away.

Update: The unified front to make demands of the networks appears to be fizzling. Donald Trump, Chris Christie and John Kasich are among the campaigns that will not sign the joint letter to the networks, according to reps, and Carly Fiorina reportedly will not either.

“As we have for the previous three debates, the Trump campaign will continue to negotiate directly with the host network to establish debate criteria that will determine Mr. Trump’s participation,” said Hope Hicks, spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign.

On “Fox & Friends,” Chris Christie made his views pretty clear when he said of the debate fracas, “Stop complaining. Do me a favor, set up a stage, put podiums up there and let’s just go. Ok?”