Inside CNN’s Unprecedented Biden-Trump Debate Telecast That Rivals Have to Share

Any debate between 2024 presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump is bound to become a media circus. This one has a few more acts.

Some of the fiercest rivals in TV will gather Thursday night at 9 p.m., and work toward something noble:  ensuring as many Americans as possible can see the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates explain their views in a rare one-on-one joust.

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The TV networks teaming up to make it happen aren’t necessarily doing it out of a feeling of good will.

The June 27th debate is CNN’s. Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, NewsNation and NBC News are among those televising it as well, largely because the Warner Bros. Discovery outlet is making it available in the name of public service (and promotion), and the rivals are likely to generate more viewership with it than without. CNN’s overall ratings have been on a downward trajectory under its parent company’s aegis, and it’s not presumptuous to project that several of the networks airing the CNN debate will win bigger audiences than CNN itself.

In an era when big live crowds are hard to woo to TV, there’s little reason not to take the feed.

CNN, to be sure, is milking the arrangement. To simulcast the event, competitors must make the network’s signature red logo visible, and cannot put their own anchors and correspondents on screen while the event is televised. Why take it? Well, the networks picking up the feed are allowed to fill two planned three-and-a-half minute commercial breaks with their own ads, not to mention their own pre- and post-event programming, if their sales staff can close some deals (one person familiar with recent talks says movie studios, political action committees and financial services firms are among those showing interest).

The unusual media model sprouts up around the debate as a direct result of the chaos that has overwhelmed the companies that produce the bulk of entertainment and information in the U.S.

In a different era, anyone who wanted to watch such a seminal news event would have tuned in to one of three or four TV outlets showing it, and would have expected a no-frills, down-the-middle lens on the proceedings. In 2024, news aficionados will a little of that, to be sure, but also a lot of other things. A significant portion of the viewership is likely to tune in via streaming or digital media, no doubt lining the debate up alongside interactive windows filled with social-media chatter, sports scores, or other video. Viewers will expect the candidates to hurl invective at each other; make outlandish claims; and perhaps even spar with CNN’s moderators. They will also look for analysts to push partisan opinion and commentary, rather than always sticking to the facts at hand.

The appetite for such stuff has made the typical debate a non-starter. Between 1988 and 2020, the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates organized the process, lining up moderators on its own. Modern politics have churned so much with outrage, however, that both Republicans and Democrats were eager to circumvent the organization their own parties set in motion in 1987, after several elections in which the debates were put together by the League of Women Voters.

We should have seen this coming. In 2020, Trump and Biden abandoned their final CPD debate in favor of dueling town halls. Biden took to ABC News, while NBC News counter-programmed by dispatching a canny Savannah Guthrie to moderate Trump. Clearly, the candidates and their campaigns would rather play to their constituencies and avoid some of the hidebound architecture of the traditional debate logistics, which seeks to limit some of the outbursts that have become inevitable in a social-media age (and often prove ineffective in doing so).

Rather than tuning into a single event per se, viewers will get the chance to create their own. They can choose s specific pre-show and post-mortem and, in most cases, watch commercials aimed at their TV choice’s target demographic. On Thursday, June 27, TV will offer something for the history books – a day when networks would rather air a rival’s broadcast, then customize the experience leading up to and after it with content of their specific design.

The trick these days is to position content tied to the main event across multiple venues and hope to collect the viewers who flock to any one of them.

ABC News plans five hours of coverage spread across its own network and the Hulu and ABC News Live streaming services. Fox News will pre-empt its durable primetime schedule for the event, tapping Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum to co-anchor an hour-long pre-show at 8 p.m. and Sean Hannity to moderate a post-debate program at 11 p.m. The Fox broadcast network will offer its own feed with “Fox News Sunday” anchor Shannon Bream.

CBS News will put Norah O’Donnell on air starting at 8 p.m. and will offer a post-show analysis that affiliates can use in place of the local news that might ordinarily air. The Paramount Global outlet will also offer several hours’ worth of programming via its live-streaming service. Chris Cuomo will hold forth before and after the debate on News Nation.

NBC, which arguably operated the broadest array of news properties, will view for attention with all of them. The network will present pre-event coverage on NBC News Now, its live-streaming hub, with Tom Llamas, Hallie Jackson and Kristen Welker, who will continue after the debate ends. On the NBC network, Lester Holt and Savannah Guthrie will lead post-debate analysis. Meanwhile, Rachel Maddow will anchor MSNBC’s coverage at 7 p.m. before the debate, re-emerging after it ends and staying on the air until 1 a.m., when MSNBC will re-air CNN’s big event.

In this environment, the onus will be on the viewer, the potential voter, to get what they can out of the whole affair. The networks and the candidates won’t make doing so easy.

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