NBC News will move forward with an 8 p.m. town-hall broadcast Thursday featuring President Donald Trump, setting up a primetime scramble for viewers with ABC News, which is broadcasting a similar event with Democratic challenger Joe Biden at the same time on the same evening.
The dueling town halls were set in motion last week after Trump’s presidential campaign refused to take part in the second of the usual election-year debates sponsored by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. The Commission declared the second debate would take place in “virtual” fashion, with the candidates in remote locations, after Trump disclosed he had tested positive for exposure to coronavirus.
NBC News’ event will be moderated by Savannah Guthrie, and is seen following a model the NBCUniversal news operation recently followed when it broadcast a town hall with Biden. During that broadcast, the former Vice President answered questions from what were billed as undecided voters. “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt moderated the event, which was held outside at Pérez Art Museum Miami in front of a socially distanced crowd. The event will also be broadcast on MSNBC and CNBC, and stream on NBC News Now as well as digital venues that are part of NBCUniversal’s Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo.
NBC News pressed for the Trump campaign to meet specific health and safety protocols, according to a person familiar with the matter. At the network’s insistence, this person says, the National Institutes of Health had to run tests, review recent medical data and determine “with a high degree of confidence” that President Trump was no longer shedding infectious virus. NBC News said Wednesday that Dr. Clifford Lane, Clinical Director at NIH, and Dr. Anthony Fauci reviewed the president’s recent medical data as part of the process.
ABC’s Biden broadcast will be moderated by George Stephanopoulos, ABC News’ chief anchor. ABC snared a larger audience than NBC for the first presidential debate, luring an average of 10.3 million viewers, compared to NBC’s average of 7.5 million, according to audience data from Nielsen. But NBC’s parent also broadcast the event on MSNBC, which adds a different audience set to the overall mix.
Trump’s decision to appear on NBC News may strike some as odd. He has long castigated NBC News in rants and tweets, as well as MSNBC and the two networks’ corporate owner, Comcast. But at a time when his campaign is falling behind Biden’s in many overall and state polls, the exposure NBCUniversal could provide was no doubt too good to ignore.
NBC’s and ABC’s maneuvers will help to accomplish what the original debate organizers hoped to thwart. Rather than seeing both candidates answering similar questions in the same forum, the attention of the American public will be split. Supporters of either candidate can choose to watch only that candidate, rather than seeing that politician cross-examined by a moderator and having his views contrasted by those of his opponent.
NBC’s decision drew some criticism after the network confirmed the town hall on its “Today” program Wednesday morning. “Management at NBC News needs to explain ASAP how agreeing at last minute to add a town hall with President Trump opposite an ABC News Joe Biden Town Hall is in the public interest,” said Merrill Brown, a media executive who is the former editor of MSNBC.com, via Twitter. “Even doing it at 10 ET just after Biden would have been a better decision.”