As Democrats Debate, TV News Tunes In Something Other Than Trump

Analysis: President Trump’s shtick, while still commanding, is getting old -- and TV news outlets are rushing to find other topics to interest viewers.

Joe Biden SXSW

NBC News’ “Meet the Press” and CBS News’ “Face The Nation” regularly compete for Sunday-morning audiences and scoops from politicos. But this past weekend they looked nothing like one another.

On NBC, President Donald Trump dominated the hour by sitting down for a taped interview with host Chuck Todd. Over at CBS, “Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan featured a talk with Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the leading Democratic candidates for president.

“The news cycle has to be split to a greater degree than it was before,” notes Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Covering politics in this moment, he says, means trying to help voters get to know more than 20 Democratic candidates, many of whom aren’t well known by the greater public, and then trying to keep an eye on the President.  “It’s all just totally unprecedented,” he adds.

Since Donald Trump was elected to the White House in November of 2016, every pronouncement, prevarication, and social media post he’s made has sparked dozens of headlines, TV screen chyrons and mobile phone alerts. But since the spring, he’s had new competition for dominance of the news cycle. The media is scrambling to cover roughly two dozen potential Democrat hopefuls who hope to challenge Trump, and in doing so have launched a spate of primetime cable news town halls, Rachel Maddow interviews and late-night guest appearances.

The result: More Democrat spotlights to contend with the never-diminished news kliegs on the White House. “NBC Nightly News” has, since June 10, run a “My Big Idea” segment in which Harry Smith asks individual Democrats about a single policy proposal. The news unit has made extended versions of the conversations available via streaming video and podcast. Meanwhile, consultant Andrew Tyndall has noticed that the three broadcast evening newscasts over the course of January to April steadily used fewer soundbites from President Trump.

It’s almost as if the TV networks are doing what they do best. Whenever a popular program starts to get a little long in the tooth, executives rush to find something new to keep audiences from turning away. President Trump’s shtick, while still commanding, is getting old — sort of like “The Apprentice” before the show started to rely heavily on C-list celebrities.

“There’s a strong hunger for a new chapter,” says Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University. “There’s a lot of fatigue right now. There’s outrage fatigue. There’s politics fatigue. There’s Trump fatigue.”

The two news cycles are likely to swirl more intensely this week, as NBC News presents a two-night series of debates among the Democratic candidates across three different networks — NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo — and several live-streaming venues. News executives think the Democrats may lend something new to the proceedings, and even keep news junkies eager to keep getting a fix.

In a development that may raise some eyebrows, Fox News Channel has been among the most aggressive outlets in bringing Democratic candidates to the screen. The Fox Corporation-owned cable news outlet has hosted six Democratic presidential town halls this election cycle, with an event with independent Senator Bernie Sanders garnering 2.5 million viewers — the most audience out of any such event so far this year. “It sort of introduces a major new storyline into the national coverage, after a couple of years of Trump-centric coverage from all the players,” says Bill Sammon, senior vice president of news and Washington managing editor for Fox News. “We don’t really let up on our coverage of Trump, but now we’ve got something else out there to look at.”

Not if the White House can help it. One side effect of the intensifying focus on Democrats has been an all-out push by the President, who has suddenly expanded the access he has given to mainstream media outlets other than Fox News. Trump has in recent weeks spoken on the phone to CNBC’s Joe Kernen during that business news network’s “Squawk Box,” granted hours of observation to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos; as well as an interview to Time Magazine. Trump’s general modus operandi is to give most of his interviews to Fox News hosts and anchors.

“He’s adapting his strategy to a different moment in time,” says Rick Klein, ABC News’ political director.

But so too are news outlets. CNN started holding town halls with Democratic candidates early in this cycle, launching its current series with events like a January sit down with Senator Kamala Harris and Jake Tapper from Drake University in Des Moines.

“We decided this cycle we wanted to be a place for the candidates to introduce themselves without having the same kind of time limits you have in debates,” says Sam Feist, a CNN senior vice president who oversees its Washington newsgathering. And while some rivals may snare better ratings by hosting Democrats further into the cycle or ones who are better known, he says, CNN is likely to arrange on-air meeting with most viable candidates. “We don’t want to be in the portion of picking the top tier ourselves,” he says. “That’s really for the voters to decide — not us.” CNN is likely to continue similar broadcasts, Feist says.

At this point in a typical election cycle, the “out of town party” tends to get the lion’s share of attention, says the University of Virginia’s Sabato. “They would get the focus, because the news that Trump is running for the Republican nomination is not news,” he explains. But Trump will no doubt continue his efforts to be heard, and news outlets will have to cover his fulminations even as sundry Democrats open salvos about policy proposals.

News outlets have no alternative to covering both subjects in full. “We have put enough resources into both of the storylines,” says CNN’s Feist. “We don’t have to make choices.”