CNN Will Buck Tradition and Put Commercial Breaks in Biden-Trump Presidential Debate

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are likely to interrupt one another during CNN’s telecast of the first presidential debate in the run-up to the 2024 election. But they will also be cut off by something else.

CNN plans to run commercials during the event, according to two people familiar with the matter, which has run free of ads for many years under the management of the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates. The candidates have in this cycle opted to forego the CPD’s traditional structure, which calls for a series of debates to be held closer to the November election. They have instead come to separate terms with CNN for a debate to be held on June 27 and with ABC News for a debate to be held on September 10.

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CNN’s plan to include commercials was noted in rules for access that were recently issued to members of the DC Television News Pool and subscribers of its feed as well as to CNN’s affiliates. What’s more, networks will have the option of selling their own commercials instead of running the ones that air on CNN. CNN has yet to offer information about how many ad breaks the debate will contain and how long they will be, according to one of these people.

CNN declined to make executives available for comment.

The unique plan could see TV networks that aren’t managing the debate make more money off it than CNN. The Warner Bros. Discovery-backed cable-news outlet has been bedeviled in recent months by a lackluster program schedule that has curtailed ratings in key timeslots including weekday prime. If Fox News Channel or MSNBC were to air the CNN telecast and sell their own commercials, they might be able to command better prices than CNN. Both networks typically win more viewers in primetime than their competitor.

Better the commercials, perhaps, than rival news personnel. CNN’s rules for access prohibit other news organizations from filling commercial breaks with commentary segments from their own analysts, correspondents or personalities. That rule would keep MSNBC, for example, from surrounding its CNN feed with remarks from Rachel Maddow, and Fox News from dispatching Sean Hannity to offer his opinion during breaks in the CNN action.

CNN has assigned Dana Bash and Jake Tapper to moderate the exchanges between Biden and Trump.

Advertisers have long been interested in the presidential debates, even though they have been unable to place commercials alongside it after the event has started. Anheuser-Busch InBev, for example, has long served up beer and food in a pop-up biergarten situated at the auditoriums or theaters where debates have taken place.

In some years, advertisers have run commercials with messages that play off the fact that a presidential debate is taking placed and worked to air them before or after the policy statements and harsh words fly. Audi ran an ad in 2016 on the night of the first CPD debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton night showing two valets fighting to take command of an Audi RS 7. “Beautiful things are worth fighting for,” the ad said. “Choose the next driver wisely.” Web-services firm GoDaddy ran a TV commercial suggesting its “GoDaddy Guy” was on the campaign trail. “There is no other candidate that’s more affordable,” the character said in the spot.

The presidential debates are typically lucrative for TV networks — and so are primary ones. CBS in 2016 sought between $200,000 and $225,000 for a 30-second ad during coverage taking place following a Trump-Clinton debate. CNN in 2019 sought a commitment of around $300,000 in advertising on the network before it would give a potential sponsor the chance to purchase commercials within two debates among Democratic presidential hopefuls.

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