Back in August the news was being blared from the rooftops in media watching circles: the first GOP debate had landed Fox News the highest ratings they’ve ever seen, with more than 24 million people tuning in. (For a relatable comparison, last week’s Monday Night Football managed 14.4M.) CNN hosted the second Republican debate and they cashed in on some serious numbers as well, breaking their own personal best with 23 million viewers. One might suspect that the business of televising political debates is the new Big Thing in the television game.
So CNN must be pretty excited about tomorrow’s Democrat debate, eh? Who wouldn’t want to rack up those sort of numbers again? But as it turns out, they’re not exactly planning to bring down the roof with this one. (Politico)
A ratings success for CNN will look nothing like the 23 million viewers the network saw at the second GOP debate, or the 24 million viewers from the first GOP debate hosted by Fox News.
“Viewership for the first two GOP debates was an anomaly in a highly unusual Republican nomination cycle. While I won’t predict ratings for this debate, we expect the audience to be significantly smaller,” said CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist.
The 2008 cycle saw some high numbers for the Democratic debates, drawn by the head-to-head match-up of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom had a chance to make history as either the first black or woman president. The most watched Democratic debates of the 2008 cycle came late in the season. On Jan. 31, 2008, the Democratic debate hosted by CNN, brought in 8.3 million viewers.
Those comparisons to the last presidential cycle are rather telling. It’s not as if the country wasn’t in trouble in 2008, though the focus was less on foreign enemies knocking at our doors and more on our economy imploding. But the best Democrat debate in January (which, as they point out at Politico, featured two potentially historic candidates) still managed less than a third of the GOP debate audience this time. The October debate in 2007 for the Democrats brought in just 2.45 million viewers.
There are likely a couple of different factors feeding into this lowering of expectations and Mark Joyella at TV Newser jumps on the most obvious one. If you have Trump you get the numbers. If you don’t, you get the political geeks. And unfortunately for our democracy, the head count of those geeks who are willing to tune away from the latest Big Bang Theory episode to watch a bunch of politicians argue with each other doesn’t make for a very big audience. (Big Bang Theory, by the way, racked up 6.8 million sets of eyeballs last week.)
But is it really all just The Donald Effect? Or are Democrat debates just not that interesting? True, Mr. Trump brings a lot to the table and that likely accounts for a huge part of the difference, but the Democrats have a show with a script that probably wouldn’t make it past the first screener for a network prime time show. Regardless of the splash that Bernie Sanders has been making, Hillary still dominates the polls and nobody else is even worth looking at unless Biden gets in the race. At this point there just isn’t all that much tension over who the nominee will be. Plus, while moderators try to tear up the Republicans as much as they can and inspire some food fights and drama, the Democrats will most likely be swinging at softballs and seeing chances to agree with each other for the most part.
None of that makes for compelling television. CNN is probably smart to play the lowering expectations game well in advance. It would be embarrassing to build this thing up as if it was going to dominate the night and then lose to a rerun of CSI.