Presidential debate expected to generate audience record and high scrutiny on moderator Lester Holt

If NBC News anchor Lester Holt is nervous about moderating the first presidential debate, he wasn’t showing it earlier this week as he rocked his electric bass on a rooftop lounge overlooking the Hudson River.

Playing with a rock band made up of cohorts from the network’s news magazine show “Dateline,” Holt ably soloed on the Alabama Shakes song “Always Alright” in front of a throng of cheering colleagues. It was a break from his intensive preparation for Monday’s showdown between Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump.

Holt’s homework sessions kept him away from his anchor duties on “NBC Nightly News” in the days before the live telecast from Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Airing across the major broadcast networks, Spanish-language channels and cable services, the anticipated match-up is expected to top the previous debate audience record of 80.6 million TV viewers set in 1980 for the single meeting between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

The only real competition for viewers’ attention is a lackluster “NFL Monday Night Football” match-up on ESPN between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints.

Millions of viewers are also expected to watch online as many websites and social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, will offer free video streaming of the event.

“This one seems to have aroused the greatest attention and more debate-before-the-debate than any of them,” said Newton Minow, vice chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, whose involvement goes back to the the first historic televised showdown between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.

The reason viewing levels may skyrocket? Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, cites the unpredictability of Trump, whose appearances in the Republican primary debates set audience records on four different cable networks over the past year.

“It’s the same reason why this election is different than all other elections,” Sabato said. “People will tune in to see the car crash. Trump’s gotten a big audience from the beginning because you knew you’d either see a fender bender or a fatality. This is the big stage and the first one-on-one debate he’s done.”

The bright spotlight on Holt and NBC News has been turned up a few notches after the network’s “Commander-In-Chief Forum” on Sept. 7. The tightly formatted event in which Matt Lauer questioned each presidential candidate blew up into its own campaign issue as many critics blasted the “Today” co-anchor for failing to fact check Trump for falsely stating his opposition to the Iraq war. Lauer also took heat from Clinton backers for focusing on her using a personal email server for her work as secretary of State.

Lauer was the subject of a brutal rant from comic Samantha Bee on her TBS show “Full Frontal.” Showing clips of the anchor in costume as Pamela Anderson on “Today,” Bee said, “Maybe this Halloween he can dress up as a journalist.”

The vitriolic reaction, which included a New York Times editorial that also panned Lauer’s performance, stung NBC News brass. The news division’s chairman, Andy Lack, felt compelled to praise Lauer in an internal memo that was shared with reporters, noting that the event watched by 15 million viewers generated a number of stories on Trump’s national security qualifications.

NBC News isn’t commenting on the preparation for Monday’s event,  and at the Commission on Presidential Debates’ request, the moderators do not talk to the media in advance of their assignments.

Holt’s reputation takes some of the pressure off NBC News. The veteran anchor, who took over “NBC Nightly News” last year when Brian Williams was forced to step down, is among most well-liked figures within the company and has never been accused of bias. His work ethic is legendary, and his personal political leanings are a mystery, even to Trump, who publicly suggested that Holt is a Democrat. In fact, Holt is a registered Republican, which in New York is as rare as street parking in Manhattan.

NBC News has also been given some backup from past presidential debate moderators who said fact-checking the candidates was never considered part of their primary duties.

“The candidates should be the chief fact checkers,” said CBS News contributor Bob Schieffer, who was a moderator in the last three presidential cycles. “If somebody says something that’s totally wrong,  you want to give the other person the chance to call them on it. If they don’t, then the moderator has to step in to correct the record.”

Still, Sabato said Holt will feel the pressure to make sure misstatements don’t slip through.

“One assumes the moderator does not want to be beaten up the way Lauer was, so they probably will come into the debate being tough and doing some fact-checking,” he said. “The smart way to do it is to do to both candidates so you don’t get 10,000 emails and tweets accusing you of horrible bias.”

Social media will likely let the moderators know quickly which side users think is being slighted. Fox News Channel anchor Bret Baier, who co-moderated the first Republican debate in August 2015,  said absorbing the instant online critiques is now part of the job.

“In this election, there is no filter on Twitter and social media a lot of times,” Baier said. “In one sense, that’s refreshing and raw and you get in real time what they’re feeling. The role of the anchor hasn’t changed, but the passionate voter who supports his or her candidate has changed, and a lot of the targeting is on the media. That’s OK. We’re big boys and girls.”

Other anchors will have their turn in the barrel in the next three debates, which tend to score lower ratings than the first televised meeting of the candidates at the top of the ticket.

On Oct. 4, Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, will face off against Trump’s, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, with CBS News anchor Elaine Quijano as moderator.

Clinton and Trump meet again Oct. 9 with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC's Martha Raddatz taking questions from voters in a town hall setting. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace has the final scheduled match-up on Oct. 19.


For the record: An earlier version of this article called Sen. Tim Kaine the governor of Virginia. He was formerly governor.


 

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stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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