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Taking presidential debates out of commission’s hands virtually guarantees fewer viewers

NEW YORK (AP) — The planned presidential debates between Joe Biden and Donald Trump that were swiftly organized this week are a coup for CNN and ABC News — but a virtual guarantee they’ll be among the least-watched general election contests ever.

The two campaigns skirted the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized the events for 36 years with the goal of getting them before as many eyes as possible.

ABC, which has assigned David Muir and Linsey Davis as moderators for a debate scheduled for Sept. 10, has said it will make it available for simulcast on any U.S. television network or streaming service that wants it. CNN had not said by early Friday whether it will do the same for its debate, set for June 27 with Jake Tapper and Dana Bash as questioners.

A debate between Vice President Kamala Harris and whomever former President Trump chooses as his running mate is expected to air this summer on CBS.

Each of the two debates between Biden and Trump in 2020 were carried on at least 16 networks, according to the Nielsen company. The first was seen by 73.1 million viewers, the second by 63 million.

Debates prior to a party’s nominating process, which Trump skipped this year, are usually organized and broadcast by individual media organizations. The tradition has been different for those organized by the commission during general election campaigns, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and member of a group of experts Annenberg organized a decade ago that explored ways to increase viewership.

“It’s the public’s debate,” Jamieson said.

For CNN leaders, there’s a great temptation to keep it for themselves. It would likely be the most-watched event ever on a network that is struggling in ratings. CNN’s chief executive, Mark Thompson, made a point in tying the debate to the brand on Wednesday when he announced the agreement to hold it during a sales presentation to advertisers in New York.

“When people have something important to say,” Thompson said, “they say it on CNN.”

CNN said Wednesday the debate would also air live on its international and Spanish-speaking networks, and stream on CNN Max and CNN.com.

The pool of people available to watch on CNN’s main television network is dwindling due to cord-cutting of cable and satellite services. CNN was available in 71% of American homes with television in May 2020; this month it’s just under 54%, Nielsen said.

Keeping the debate on CNN alone would run up against stout criticism that it’s not the public-spirited thing to do, something ABC moved quickly to avoid.

Political polarization that has spread to the media would also likely cut into viewership if the event was not shared, Jamieson said. Would Fox News viewers, after years of hearing CNN criticized by some of their favorite politicians and media figures, turn to CNN for a debate or skip it entirely?

It’s still not certain how many other networks will carry the debates even with the opportunity. Only PBS has said that it would; other networks have yet to give a public commitment.

Some of those executives would have to swallow hard to carry another network’s personalities on their air, with the risk some of their regular viewers might like them and switch allegiances. Pressure to carry the debates for public service reasons would be intense, though.

Despite worries about how many people will watch, Jamieson said there’s some irony in that there’s a lot to like about the proposed ground rules for the event. So far, the plans are to hold them in television studios without an audience.

That’s something the Annenberg group had proposed a decade ago, saying an audience that reacts to what the candidates are saying is often a distraction, and that audience is usually packed with partisans on both sides.

If the two campaigns agree to rules where one candidate’s microphone would be shut off while his opponent answers a question, it would go a long way to solving what has been a more frequent problem recently with politicians interrupting and talking over an opponent, she said.

“If someone had told me that there was going to be some good news about political discourse this year, I would have told them they were delusional,” she said.

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David Bauder writes about media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder.

David Bauder, The Associated Press



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