CNBC Debate Had Fewer Viewers Than Any Debate So Far, Which Is Good For CNBC
While it did draw 14 million viewers, last night's CNBC debate had the smallest audience of any Presidential debate so far. That was probably a good thing for CNBC considering how bad the debate was.
Preliminary data indicates that last night’s Republican debate on CNBC drew a smaller audience than either of the previous two Republican debates, which is probably good news for CNBC since it limited the amount of people who saw the train wreck that they created:
The third GOP presidential primary debate, hosted by CNBC attracted 14 million viewers, the network announced, further cementing this cycle’s presidential debates as ratings gold for television.
It’s a ratings record for CNBC, making it the most watched night in the network’s history. CNBC’s previous ratings record was 3.9 million people during 2002 Winter Olympics coverage.
But the 14 million puts CNBC’s debate well below the ratings from Fox News’ and CNN’s GOP debates which brought in 24 million viewers and 23 million viewers respectively, both ratings records for the networks and for a non-sports cable event.
The 6p.m. undercard debate average 1.6 million total viewers, the network said.
The network tried to take full advantage of the high profile debate to boost viewership, putting nearly all of their anchors and commentators on full display. But the debate took a turn when the candidates and many in the media and political worlds, including RNC chairman Reince Priebus, started criticizing the moderators.
CNBC cut away not long after the debate in favor of airing a new reality show “The Profit,” leaving the post debate coverage to CNBC’s livestream. The move seemed to work, as the episode average 1.9 million total viewers, making it CNBC’s most watched original series telecast in the network’s history.
There are likely several reasons for the lower numbers, including perhaps most prominently the fact that the debate was airing at the same time as Game Two of the World Series between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals. Additionally, most of the broadcast networks are now well into airing new episodes of their fall series and that likely drew viewers away as well. Those factors, combined with the fact that the debate was being broadcast on a network that many Americans likely rarely watch to begin with, no doubt contributed to the fact that last night’s debate saw fewer viewers than the 24 million that watched the first Republican debate, the 22 million who watched the second debate, or even the 15 million who watched the first Democratic debate earlier this month. While CNBC did garner the highest ratings of any program it has ever broadcast, the drop in numbers seems to indicate that even the presence of Donald Trump may not be enough to hold viewer interest beyond the novelty of one or two debates. Indeed, it’s worth noting that it has historically been the case for both the primary and General Election cycles that viewership tends to drop off after the first debates, and that’s likely what we’re seeing now. The factor is likely to be amplified in next month’s debate on Fox Business Network even without a competing World Series game given the fact that Fox Business is available on roughly only 74% of cable networks while CNBC is available on well over 90%.
Given how the debate went, though, CNBC should probably be happy that more people didn’t see the debacle that was unfolding on television last night. As James Joyner noted in his debate recap this morning, last night’s debate was by far the worst moderated of any of the debates we have seen so far in the 2016 cycle in either party. Some might argue that, at least in part, the chaos that often seemed to unfold on stage was due to the sheer number of candidates in the main debate, but the fact that we had ten candidates in August Fox news debate and eleven in the September debate on CNN without seeing similar issues makes it clear that the problems lied largely with the moderator and questioners, who largely seemed to move randomly from topic to topic and certainly didn’t stay focused on the economic topics that were allegedly supposed to be the focus of the debate. In the end, as The New York Times puts it, the debate ended up becoming a battle between CNBC and the GOP, and CNBC lost:
The first question at CNBC’s Republican debate on Wednesday night was, “What’s your biggest weakness?” A moderator, Carl Quintanilla, described this as a “job interview” line. True: It is the kind of gimmick that sounds slyly revealing but is not; one that, at a job interview, is a good sign that you would be happier sending your résumé to a different employer.
The morning after its testy, fumbled debate, CNBC could well be asking itself another job-interview question: Where do you see yourself in four years? Answer: Maybe not hosting a presidential debate.
CNBC managed to please almost no one, except maybe the candidates who scored easy points by pummeling the questioners. The forum was raucous but not revealing, combative but not authoritative, chaotic but not interesting. And it ended in the nigh-impossible spectacle of conservatives accusing the Wall Street-focused business network of swinging the ax for the liberal media.
Back in August, in the first Republican debate of the cycle, Fox News’s moderators asked tough questions — much too tough, notably, for Donald J. Trump’s liking — and held firm on the debate rules. CNBC seemed to be trying this approach, but without the quickness and discipline to pull it off.
The debate quickly became candidates vs. CNBC. The network lost in a rout.
The moderators often seemed simultaneously aggressive and underprepared: a fatal combination. Becky Quick asked Mr. Trump about having once called Marco Rubio “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator” — referring to the founder of Facebook. But when Mr. Trump denied it, Ms. Quick failed to recall that the quotation came from his own website. Instead, she said “My apologies,” despite having gotten the words right.
Ms. Quick mentioned the source later, but the moment had passed and the impression that Mr. Trump had won the exchange had been made. When you leave your homework in your locker like that, the audience will not be offering makeup credit later.
CNBC set an adversarial tone without establishing the authority to back it up. The candidates sensed an opening and took it. The debate rules, whatever they were, became like a suggested donation at a museum. Some candidates barreled into conversations; others faded away. (Jeb Bush, a focus of pre-debate attention, ended up with less speaking time than anyone but Senator Rand Paul.)
And the candidates competed to out-bash the hapless moderators and the media at large: Ted Cruz slammed the panel (by way of not answering a question about the recent Congressional budget deal) for fomenting a “cage match,” while Mr. Rubio called the press a “super PAC” for the Democrats.
That is a trusty technique that worked well for Newt Gingrich in 2012, but the CNBC team did give the candidates ammunition. A less-than-urgent question about regulating fantasy football let Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey slam CNBC for trivializing the campaign. And co-moderator John Harwood (who also contributes to The New York Times) often delivered his questions as if he were a candidate whose handlers had prepped him with zingers. (To Mr. Trump: “Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?”)
Maybe the greatest long-term damage of the night though, was that it bolstered the specious idea that a network’s responsibility is to please the party participating in its debate. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, immediately deplored the debate, touching off an argument over whether there was anti-conservative bias on the panel, even though one of its members, Rick Santelli, essentially gave the Tea Party its name.
Most of the criticism of the debate moderators from the right today is adopting the “media bias” argument while also in some cases attacking the RNC for agreeing to a debate on CNBC to begin with, but you don’t need to buy into the long-standard conservative arguments about “media bias to recognize where last night’s debate went wrong. The CNBC moderators had said from the start that there intention was to get the candidates to provide more context for some of the positions they have taken during the campaign, especially on economic issues. This is a laudable goal, and it’s one that we saw to some degree from both the Fox News and CNN debates as well, but the problem for CNBC is that they never really achieved it and seemed to quickly lose control of the process. Instead of real discussions of economic policy, we got recycled questions about Donald Trump’s corporate bankruptcies, a question about Ben Carson’s alleged link to some company selling a diet product of some kind that never seemed to have a point, and other questions that seemed more intent on getting into an argument with the candidates, or having them argue among themselves, rather than getting real answers. More importantly, when one candidate or another ran over their allotted time, which inevitably happens in these affairs, there was nobody who seemed able or willing to regain control of the process. This resulted in several moments where candidates and moderators were talking over each other and nobody seemed to know what anyone was saying.
In the wake of this debate, some conservatives have renewed a call for debates that are moderated by people who are more ideologically inclined to the GOP. The purpose of this, they argue, would be to get the candidates to focus on issues and questions that are of interest to the people who will actually be voting in Republican primaries rather than things that principally of interests to the reporters and pundits who cover the campaign. There’s a lot of merit in this idea, of course, and even the Democrats have adopted this idea somewhat in the form of a forum to be held next Friday in New Hampshire that will be moderated by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, although this is technically not one of the debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. It strikes me, though, that this goal can be achieved without resorting to debates where people like Sean Hannity are asking questions. Fox News Channel did a fairly good job at it, for example, with a panel of questioners made up of hosts and reporters who are quite popular on the right yet still widely seen as being “straight shooters” by media observers. On the same level, CNN’s debate was moderated by Jake Tapper, who has a good reputation among conservatives going back to his days as a reporter on ABC News, and one of the questioners was Hugh Hewitt, long-time host of a conservative leaning radio talk show. Why CNBC was unable to come up with a better panel for its debate I don’t know, perhaps this is the best they had and perhaps reporters who spend their day reporting mostly on business and economic matters aren’t really well suited for a political debate. Whatever the reason, though, CNBC should probably be happy that more people didn’t watch their train wreck, and those of us who actually watch this thing will just have to hope that Fox Business Network’s debate, which will be moderated by Neil Cavuto, Maria Bartiromo, and Gerard Baker, will avoid the obvious mistakes that were made last night so that the debate could actually be somewhat informative.