American politics has become an entertainment spectacle, and Episode 1 of the 2020 election season will air in a few hours.
NBC will host the first Democratic primary debates, split over Wednesday and Thursday evening at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT, and millions of viewers are expected to tune in to learn about the 20 candidates who will be taking the stage. The unprecedented number of Democratic presidential hopefuls required the first debate to be split into two nights; 10 candidates will take the stage tonight, with another 10 following tomorrow. Of course, this is hardly a bad thing for the network: Two debates over two nights means twice the commercials, after all.
Although it may be difficult to determine the precise viewership numbers for the two-part Democratic debates, since audiences will be tuning in on a wide variety of mediums, it’s certain to draw a massive audience. The debates will air on NBC and MSNBC, while a Spanish-language broadcast will run on Telemundo. For the cord cutters, the debates will also be free to watch at NBCNews.com, MSNBC.com, the organization’s social media pages, and on the NBC News phone app.
Politics has become one of the most important viewership drivers for television news networks and is as culturally significant as the Super Bowl or latest Hollywood blockbuster. After all, that’s part of the reason the man who previously fired Meat Loaf and George Takei for running imaginary businesses incorrectly on “The Apprentice” is now in charge of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that NBC has been exhaustively promoting the upcoming debates and has prepared its A-team to moderate the event. Television ratings star Rachel Maddow will moderate the event alongside other well-known NBC anchors such as Chuck Todd and Lester Holt. The Democratic National Committee, aware of its voting demographic, is requiring every sanctioned debate to include at least one woman and one person of color on its moderator panel.
While all of the Democratic debates will offer a significant ratings boost to each network that hosts them, the first debate will likely be especially impactful from a ratings perspective, which is sure to please NBC executives. CNN will host the second Democratic debate in July.
And although most of the major television outlets will host their own Democratic debates in the months ahead, Fox News is not among them. Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez cited the network’s “inappropriate relationship” with President Donald Trump and criticized its lack of objectivity in a March statement. Many Democrats have begun distancing themselves from Fox News due to its deep ties to the Trump administration and unapologetic conservative bent.
Though some candidates have participated in Fox News town halls in recent months, others, such as presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), have made headlines for publicly rejecting potential appearances on the network.
For candidates such as Warren and Harris, they may believe it makes more sense to campaign to more politically neutral or liberal voters than trying to siphon votes from the conservative Fox News audience, which is a much more difficult demographic for a Democratic candidate to win over. Candidates are also considering the optics of appearing on networks—and potentially boosting the network’s revenue—that have values anathema to their beliefs. That’s what Warren bluntly suggested in a series of tweets last month when the Massachusetts senator declined to participate in a Fox News town hall and referred to the network as a “hate-for-profit racket.”
Fox News is a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists—it’s designed to turn us against each other, risking life and death consequences, to provide cover for the corruption that’s rotting our government and hollowing out our middle class.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) May 14, 2019
Of course, this all probably matters little to Fox News, as the network already has a massive and loyal audience that may not have much crossover with other cable television news outlets.
Though it’s unlikely any of the other networks will generate as much ill-will as Fox News, television news outlets made a handful of particularly public mistakes throughout the 2016 election season that they will likely work to avoid this time around.
For one, television networks will probably avoid regularly airing a candidate’s political event without interruptions or critical analyses. CNN may be one of the president’s favorite punching bags, but the network also significantly aided Trump’s 2016 campaign—which the New York Times reported received $2 billion in free media coverage—by regularly airing his presidential rallies in their entirety throughout that election season.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan argued in 2016 that CNN CEO Jeff Zucker, the prior head of NBC Entertainment and the man who helped launch Trump’s television career by greenlighting “The Apprentice” in 2004, was one of the key factors in Trump’s political ascent.
That said, CNN was hardly the only network that reaped the ratings benefits of wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s rallies. Les Moonves, the ex-CEO of CBS Entertainment who was ousted last September due to sexual misconduct allegations, stated in 2016 that “(Trump’s candidacy) may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”
Nihilistic? Undoubtedly! Of course, cable television news is a business and money needs to be made, but the networks seem to be more sensitive about supplying large amounts of free, uncritical airtime to political candidates. To their credit, networks have been somewhat more selective recently, and some live coverage of Trump’s speeches and rallies is supplemented by fact checkers.
Another, comparably clear-cut thing that television networks will need to avoid this campaign season: Don’t collude with a candidate’s campaign. Major controversy erupted in October 2016 when WikiLeaks revealed that then-CNN pundit Donna Brazile leaked a debate question to Hilary Clinton’s campaign. Though CNN promptly severed ties with Brazile, who was also working as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee at the time, the scandal caused all sorts of headaches for the network and threw its objectivity into question. Brazile now works as a pundit for Fox News.
Perhaps the most obvious change the television news industry is seeing this campaign season is the increased number of Democratic debates. There are going to be 12 Democratic debates over the next year or so, which begs the question of whether this will cause voter fatigue or an information overload. After all, what new tidbits of information are viewers going to gleam from the 11th debate that somehow wasn’t covered in the 10th debate?
Such skepticism is fair, but on the other hand, the large number of debates could also be a direct response to criticisms about the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries. 2016 Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), who is running again, and former Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley criticized the Democratic Party for not hosting more debates in that election cycle. There were originally six sanctioned Democratic debates planned for the 2016 campaign, though that number was later increased to nine.
The sizable number of debates this time around could also be a response to the expanded roster of Democratic presidential hopefuls. There are a staggering 26 major candidates vying for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, the largest field in modern American history.
Also different this year is that candidates were randomly selected to appear on specific debate nights. Although this could be construed as a negative thing, it’s refreshing to see organizers not place overt emphasis on early poll results when determining which candidates will debate first.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders, and Warren have been consistently leading the Democratic polls for some time, but one of the clearest takeaways from the 2016 election is that polling, especially this early in the campaign season, is laughably unreliable. After all, around this time during the 2016 election cycle, polls suggested that Jeb Bush could be the Republican frontrunner, with Scott Walker hot on his heels.
Time will tell if another Trump-style upset upends the political establishment. If nothing else, tonight’s debate will likely shed light on how the next few months of Democratic politics will play out. One thing is certain: It is going to be an exhausting and extremely competitive 16-odd months of campaigning.
Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, and Elizabeth Warren will take the stage for Wednesday’s debate.
Joe Biden, Michael Bennet, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang will participate in Thursday’s debate.
Seth Moulton, Steve Bullock, Mike Gravel, and Wayne Messam did not qualify for the first debates.