If the commercials promoting CNN’s Republican primary debate Wednesday make it look like a highly anticipated pay-per-view boxing event, it means they’re working.
“That was the idea,” CNN President Jeff Zucker said last week. “This is Round 2 of a heavyweight bout.”
Or the second episode of a wildly successful hit show. CNN anticipates its largest audience ever when Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and nine other contenders meet Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. It would achieve that plateau by getting 75% of the 24 million viewers who watched the first GOP debate of the 2016 presidential race on the Fox News Channel on Aug. 6, the surprise must-see TV event of the summer.
The previous audience high for a presidential primary debate on a cable news channel was the 8.3 million who watched CNN’s coverage of the Democratic contenders’ face-off on Jan. 5, 2008. In the 2012 cycle, in which President Obama did not have a primary challenger, none of the Republican debates drew more than 7.6 million viewers.
The difference is Trump, the breakout star of the 2016 campaign, who is driving up ratings, interest and poll numbers with his at times outrageous remarks that would have sunk establishment politicians. His ratings magnetism as a candidate continued when his appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” boosted the late-night program to its largest Friday audience in 18 months.
Strong demand for advertising time during the CNN debate has sent prices for a 30-second spot soaring into the $150,000-$200,000 range. Advertising on the main debate with the 11 top polling candidates is sold out, although there are only four commercial breaks in the telecast, compared with the 15 typical during three hours of CNN’s prime time.
“This is a television series that Trump has launched,” said Joe Peyronnin, a former TV news executive and associate journalism professor at Hofstra University in Hemptstead, N.Y. “The Republicans hope it gets canceled. In the meantime, it’s got everybody’s attention.”
The real estate mogul and reality TV host is well aware of his ratings impact. He’s publicly asked CNN to donate $10 million of the profits from its debate to veterans’ groups in return for his participation.
CNN has steadfastly declined to comment on Trump’s request, which, like many of his statements, he’s repeated ad nauseam. But it’s highly unlikely that the network would seriously consider the idea, which would be tantamount to compensating a news subject for an appearance.
CNN executives fully expect Trump — never one to pass up an opportunity to be seen by another massive TV audience — to be on the debate stage in front of the plane that served as Air Force One for President Reagan.
Although it’s clear that CNN will do much better financially than it would have were Trump not a part of it, Zucker said some of the money is being plowed into the network’s commitment to political coverage.
“CNN has made a tremendous investment this year in politics,” he said. “We’ve dramatically expanded our political reporting team both in digital and television. Recouping that investment is part of the strategy.”
But Zucker is fully aware of how Trump has transformed the conversation about the campaign. He’s seen this situation before. When he was a young executive producer at NBC’s “Today” in 1992, he seized on the third-party candidacy of business mogul Ross Perot that had galvanized the public’s interest. Zucker tossed out the standard morning show format and allowed Perot to take phone calls from viewers for an hour or more.
“There was a lot of excitement around that race, and this is very reminiscent of that election,” Zucker said.
But media critics have carped that Trump is getting an inordinate amount of press coverage compared with the other candidates. Zucker acknowledges that there have been discussions within CNN about how much Trump is too much and whether his effect on ratings is driving the coverage. Zucker believes the time his network has devoted is justified.
"As a front-runner, he is going to attract the most amount of attention,” Zucker said. “I’m not going to apologize for the fact that he accepts our invitations to come on the air when many of the others, whom we invite just as much as we invite Mr. Trump, do not accept those invitations. I’m not going to penalize him just because the others decline to come on. That’s their decision, and certainly their prerogative. That doesn’t mean we don’t do interviews with him. I feel very comfortable with our proportion of [Trump] coverage. I think that’s borne out in his position in the race and the amount of interest the audience has in the story.”
Trump made the Fox debate an even bigger story by attacking one of its moderators, Megyn Kelly, for her tough questions about the candidate’s disparaging statements about women. CNN’s debate moderator, Jake Tapper, anchor of “The Lead” and the Sunday Washington program “State of the Union,” said he wasn’t concerned about becoming the target of a Trump insult if the candidate deemed the questioning Wednesday as unfair.
“I’m a big boy,” Tapper said, noting that Trump already had described one of his queries as “stupid” when he appeared on “State of the Union.” “From the very beginning, I’ve treated him as I’ve treated other candidates.”
Zucker said Fox News did “a great job” with the first debate. The only difference in CNN’s approach will be an attempt to get more cross talk between the candidates.
“We’re going to be reading what other people have said about them,” Tapper said. “We want them to debate not with me but each other.”
Tapper has been watching debates since the 1984 presidential debate showdown between Reagan and Democrat Walter Mondale. But the unexpected turns in the 2016 campaign have heightened the excitement of being a part of Wednesday’s event.
“I really have no idea how this movie ends,” he said. “It’s a mystery. Playing a small part in it is a huge honor. A dream.”
When: 3 p.m. Wednesday (first round)
When: 5 and 10 p.m. Wednesday (final round)