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TV News Hopes NBC’s Democrat Debate Spurs More Than a Political Windfall

NBC News is gearing up to cover two sprawling Democratic debates. But the trappings around them may remind viewers of another network staple: “Sunday Night Football.”

NBCUniversal will televise debates among the Democratic candidates for U.S. presidency over two nights and across three different TV networks, as well as via host of digital venues, including NBC’s recently launched streaming outlet NBC News Now as well as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Twenty different candidates will be grilled by at least one of five NBC News and MSNBC hosts – Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Jose Diaz Balart, Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd – over the course of two hours each on Wednesday and Thursday evening in events broadcast from Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center.

The telecast will mark the first time many viewers will be able to see former Vice President Joe Biden, widely considered a front-runner, spar with candidates including Senator Kamala Harris or Senator Bernie Sanders.  “We are just trying to prepare for any scenario,” says Rashida Jones, NBC News’ senior vice president for specials, in an interview.

What no one can anticipate, however, are the ratings, and whether America’s news apparatus will see continued interest in a President Trump-dominated political cycle that has yet to cease its churn.  Can can a debate set so early in the cycle – just as America starts to go on summer vacation – really light a spark?

“We are asking people to dine on a diet of presidential politics more than a year before they are actually going to vote,” says Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

There are good business reasons for NBC News to get ready. A robust debate and an alert group of moderators can win anchors and their respective news divisions new admirers, while a lackluster performance can bring out the naysayers. Megyn Kelly rose to a new level of fame in 2015 after she asked then-candidate Trump about the way he spoke about women (one of the news companies that grew interested in hiring her was NBC News, but that’s a story for another time). Fox Business Network gained new recognition by hosting a 2016 match-up among Republicans. And CNBC came under fire that same year after its moderators appeared to lose some control over another Republican showdown.

The networks are no doubt encouraged in 2019 by the attention paid to the Republican throwdowns in the run-up to the nation’s 2016 election. Approximately 24 million people tuned in to watch Donald Trump’s first debate on Fox News Channel in August of 2015 – at least three times the 7.6 million viewers who watched an ABC News primary debate telecast in 2011.

Debate ratings typically don’t soar to those Fox News levels. The most-watched primary debate in the 2008 preliminaries aired on ABC and snared 10.7 million viewers in April – much later in the cycle than this week’s broadcast.

 Yet no matter how many eligible candidates the Democrats field, they will not include the figure who helped spur those ratings. The only presence President Trump will have Wednesday or Thursday will have to be via any reaction he posts to the NBCU broadcasts via social media.

“There is no real way for us to know what the ratings will be,” says NBC News’ Jones. “We expect that there will be higher interest.”

Others will scrutinize NBC News’ performance as well – including executives at CNN, which is slated to host a Democratic debate in July. “I don’t know what the audience interest will be in June and July,” acknowledges Sam Feist,  a CNN senior vice president who serves as its Washington Bureau Chief. “We will be looking for questions that were not asked or were not sufficiently answered and we will look for questions that can advance the conversation.”

NBCU is quietly reworking the logistics of some of its best-known news programs, hoping that “Today,” “Morning Joe” and others will get a boost from some of the heightened interest it expects from the debates.

Holt is anchoring NBC Nightly News” from Miami all this week, while Guthrie began co-anchoring “Today” from Miami Tuesday morning. MSNBC has set pre-debate and post-debate analysis programs, led by Brian Williams, Nicolle Wallace, Chris Hayes and Lawrence O’Donnell. Telemundo plans similar broadcasts. Rachel Maddow has anchored her program from Miami Monday and Tuesday and “Morning Joe” is slated to broadcast from Miami in front of a live audience Thursday and Friday.

The company is also using the debate to bring new attention to some of its digital extensions. The new streaming-video service, NBC News Now, plans to run a pre-show and post-show each night, and will feature conversations from a student viewing party. Savannah Sellers, one of the hosts of NBC News’ Snapchat show “Stay Tuned,” has also been dispatched to Miami.

NBC News’ Jones won’t give up many details about questions or format, but says the company realizes the debates are likely to draw viewers who may not ordinarily come to NBC for information on politics. The network hopes to impress those who tune in, says Jones, and thanks to the multiple broadcasts and crowd of candidate, she adds, “it will be different from what you’ve seen before.”

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