CNN faces a split vote on an unorthodox effort it will undertake to harness interest in its coming broadcast of the next round of Democratic debates.
In a non-traditional maneuver, the AT&T-owned cable-news outlet intends to conduct a “live draw” July 18 in primetime that will determine on which of two nights various Democratic candidates will appear. Viewers will be able to learn first hand when former Vice President Joe Biden might take the stage and whether he will vie for attention with Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Kamala Harris, or neither – or any of the other members of one of the broadest candidate slates in history. CNN intends to televise two nights of debates among as many as 20 different Democrats on July 30 and July 31.
To some critics, the “draw” lends what should be serious proceedings meant to inform potential voters the air of a sporting event or game of chance. “I think the degree to which show business overtakes content in the debate process is a regrettable thing,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra university and a former senior vice president of specials at NBC News.
A spokesperson for CNN’s Washington news operations did not respond to a query seeking comment from executives on the decision to hold the preliminary live event.
And yet, for TV networks, the lure to tie more directly to the debates is no doubt hard to resist. NBC News just snared whopping audience levels for two nights of Democratic candidates sniping at each other while trying to impress audiences and five different moderators across three different networks on June 26 and June 27. Those events won 15.3 million viewers and nearly 18.1 million viewers, respectively, and put a spotlight on the high level of interest Americans have in the coming 2020 election.
In an era when live audiences have been shrinking and moving toward streaming services – even the Super Bowl has seen its average broadcast viewership erode steadily since 2015 – TV networks have worked furiously to make special events more of a draw. Walt Disney’s ESPN and ABC in April delivered two separate broadcasts of the annual NFL Draft in an effort to make the event more appealing to a wider swath of audience. In 2017, ABC News turned the first visible solar eclipse in America in 38 years into a two-hour afternoon special sponsored by Mitsubishi.
CNN may also be using the live draw to pre-empt a possible point of contention. The current generation of news aficionados is ready to take on mainstream outlets like CNN or The New York Times and argue with them about the way they chose to present an event or the motives they may have in doing so. “The idea of the passive audience has been obliterated and gone for a while,” says Nikki Usher, a professor of media at University of Illinois who studies changes in news production. “But the ways that people feel emboldened to take potshots at the news media in ways that maybe they would not have four years ago? Now it’s just standard operating procedure.”
CNN’s innovation will give viewers one less thing to harp on, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “It’s more difficult to create a conspiracy theory about a transparent process everyone can watch,” he says. “That’s why lottery numbers are drawn on live TV in many places.”
Once sedate affairs led by a single anchor, the preliminary presidential debates have become raucous and unwieldy. The Republican field for the 2016 election at one point numbered well over a dozen in the early part of the cycle. NBC News’ recent broadcasts employed five different anchors over the course of four hours of debate.
The debates can also draw viewership levels that standard primetime programming can no longer attract. Fox News Channel’s primary debate in August of 2015, anchored by Megyn Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, won more than 24 million viewers – well above the average audience for a “Modern Family” or “NCIS.”
TV-news outlets, however, need to maintain some sense of journalistic rigor over the proceedings, says Lukasiewicz, the Hofstra dean. “I know that television news has a show business and entertainment aspect to it. It always has,” he says. “But it would be great to see us reset the balance between the show-business elements and the substantial elements to better serve the voters.”