Debate fatigue? Viewership plunges 40% for CNBC debate

The results are in from CNBC’s Republican presidential debate, and they don’t look too good for the cable channel. Fox and CNN scored huge ratings and audiences in the first two debates, but the third debate saw a 40% drop in viewership. That still makes it CNBC’s best night ever, CNN’s Brian Stelter notes, but perhaps also a surprising indication of a decline in interest in the format:


CNBC’s Republican primary debate averaged 14 million viewers on Wednesday night, setting a new record for the business news channel but falling far short of the totals for two earlier debates this year.

The Nielsen ratings reaffirm that the GOP debate slate is one of the most popular shows of the fall.

The first debate of the season, televised by Fox News in August, averaged 24 million viewers. The second, televised by CNN in September, averaged 23 million viewers.

It’s still more than three times the highest number of viewers that CNBC got for its 2002 Winter Olympics coverage, which had been the channel’s high-water mark. Still, that is a dramatic fall-off from just a month earlier. CNN does have higher coverage of US households, but not by that much — 83.4% to CNBC’s 80.4% as of February of this year. In contrast, Fox News Channel only has 74.8% coverage of US households, and yet beat both CNN and CNBC with their debate. For that matter, Fox routinely blows CNN and MSNBC (81.2%) out of the water in ratings. So coverage certainly isn’t the issue here.

What gives? There was significant time between the second and third debates, so it’s not a question of saturation. The race remains as dramatic as ever and perhaps got even more so with Ben Carson’s challenge to Donald Trump’s frontrunner status in the days leading up to the debate. Yet the ratings dropped 40%, and hit the same audience level of the Democrats’ debate earlier in October. Maybe viewers could predict what a train wreck the CNBC debate would turn out to be (and some certainly did), but that doesn’t account for that kind of audience decline. Perhaos after sitting through two debates with ten people on stage fighting for scraps of time and attention, viewers realize that they’re not going to get much substance out of the format. It’s more like a sporting event than an intellectual exercise.


In this sporting event, the refs tried to win the game at the expense of the players, and ended up with egg on their faces. Stelter grudgingly admits that the questions got too personal and biased, but says that the real problem is that the moderators didn’t control the debate or themselves:

Well, there were many problems with Wednesday’s debate, and that was just one of them. Stelter and the panel try to argue here that CNBC is a conservative-leaning network, but that ignores the use and performance of John Harwood and Carl Quintanilla as moderators and panelists, who created most of the problems in the debate. Instead of just asking questions, they continually interrupted and argued with the candidates, asked insulting questions (“comic book candidate”?), and so on. Journalists like Ron Fournier expressed their disgust with the CNBC panel during the debate, declaring that media bias was for real and it was unfolding before their eyes.

Bernard Goldberg, who literally wrote the book on media bias, called the debate “a media hit job”:

For the record, I’m all for tough questions. Journalists have a responsibility to hold candidates for president responsible for their policy positions. They have an obligation to put them in the hot seat. But the overall tone of the debate wasn’t tough so much as it was snarky. And one of the moderators – John Harwood – was downright smug.

At one point Harwood asked Mike Huckabee about the cultural divide in America –but only in hopes of starting a food fight between Huckabee and Donald Trump.

“Governor Huckabee,” he began, “you’ve written about the huge divide in values between middle America and the big coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles. As a preacher as well as a politician you know the president needs moral authority to bring the country together. The leading Republican candidate when you look at the average of national polls now is Donald Trump. When you look at him do you see someone who has the moral authority to run the country?”

When was the last time Harwood asked if Hillary Clinton had the moral authority to run the country? After all, in poll after poll a majority of the American people say they don’t trust her. In one survey the words most associated with her were “liar” and “dishonest” and “untrustworthy.”

And after Harwood asked a few more questions that might as well have been written by Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her Democratic National Committee, Ted Cruz laid into him with what turned out to be the line of the night.


We’ll be hearing a lot of revisionism over the next few days about the CNBC debate. Suffice it to say, though, that the debate over the debate will be the last debate CNBC gets from the GOP for a very long while.

By the way, the audience for the undercard was a whopping … 1.6 million. There may be more people covering politics in the US than watched the warm-up act.

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