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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    My favorite part was the undercard bout between Becky Quick and John Harwood.

  2. Chas Holman says:

    They had 15 million viewers breaking their all time network ratings.

    It was also ‘pay per view’.. If you do not have cable TV, you COULD NOT watch the debate, even on the CNBC website. You HAD to have cable TV.. Which more and more Americans simply DON’T.

  3. stonetools says:

    If CNBC, which is a business oriented network featuring supply side theory stalwarts like Larry Kudlow, can be tarred as the “liberal media”, then does such criticism even mean anything more?
    The problem with the debate was that candidates wanted to avoid answering substantive questions and for the most part they did. Each candidate had ludicrous tax plans, based on faulty math and even more faulty economic theories, and that’s what they didn’t want to discuss. Ultimately it’s not the moderator’s fault if candidates avoid answering tough questions. You could have Walter Cronkite, Sam Donaldson and Edward R Murrow up there but if the candidates don’t want to answer the questions, there’s not much they can do.

    After a goofy opening question asking each candidate to name his or her greatest weakness (they dodged, of course), John Harwood asked Donald Trump if his campaign was a “comic book version” of a presidency. Ben Carson was asked how his 10 percent flat tax could possibly work, and John Kasich was baited into repeating criticisms of other candidates’ unrealistic tax plans.

    For a while, the contenders struggled with this material, but Ted Cruz found the way out by neither defending his own grossly irresponsible tax plan nor attacking any of his rivals. Instead, he lit into the moderators, accusing them of ignoring substantive issues in favor of cheap gotchas.

    That’s why the debate was bad.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Well…it’s probably good for Republicans that fewer people saw them lying their faces off.
    What a pathetic lot. Each one is more un-tethered from the fact-based world than the next.
    I understand that all politics is spin and stretching the truth. These people are, to a person, bald-faced liars.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    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.

    It’s not very complicated: Bad crop of candidates = bad debate

    On my commute ferry home from the financial district, the flat screen TV was tuned to World Series Baseball – there might have been a ‘major disturbance’ if some suggested watching the GOP debate.

    Once at home I watched the aforementioned Royals-Mets game, and I switched back-and-forth to NBA basketball.

    Much later, on the news and various cable talk shows I watched “highlights” of the debate.

    Thank god for the NBA and Major League Baseball.

  6. DrDaveT says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Well…it’s probably good for Republicans that fewer people saw them lying their faces off.

    Non-sequitur. Lying their faces off has worked brilliantly for Republicans for years now, and I don’t see any evidence that it will stop working any time soon.

  7. Pinky says:

    @al-Ameda: You mean Walker not being there brought down the ratings? Because that’s the only difference from earlier debates, and this year has been setting records.

  8. C. Clavin says:

    Understood…but I think it has reached an apogee not seen before.
    I could be wrong…but find it hard to believe.
    Of course Romney and Ryan were also mendacious as hell.
    Maybe you are right.

  9. al-Ameda says:


    You mean Walker not being there brought down the ratings? Because that’s the only difference from earlier debates, and this year has been setting records.

    Walker? If Chuck Norris was there – Walker, Texas Ranger – that might have boosted ratings.

    I’d rather watch a Philadelphia 76ers intra-squad practice than Donald Trump bloviate on any subject.

  10. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @stonetools: If CNBC, which is a business oriented network featuring supply side theory stalwarts like Larry Kudlow, can be tarred as the “liberal media”, then does such criticism even mean anything more?

    They put John Harwood on the panel.

    John Effing Harwood.

    That (if you’ll pardon the expression) “trumps” your vague assignment of political leanings.

  11. Tyrell says:

    CNBC must have been thinking of a retro production of some comedy from the ’60’s or ’70’s when they came up with this. I half expected to see Richard Dawkins or Groucho Marx asking the questions. I did not watch a lot, a baseball and basketball game were on. I want to see the whole thing now.

  12. stonetools says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    John Effing Harwood.

    Wow, based on your characterization, I expected John Harrwood’s background would be that he was a self described Marxist who reports for Democracy Now and the Village Voice. So I looked up his bio and found this:

    While still in high school, he began his journalism career as a copy boy at The Washington Star. He studied history and economics at Duke University and graduated magna cum laude in 1978. Harwood subsequently joined The St. Petersburg Times, reporting on police, investigative projects, local government and politics. Later he became state capital correspondent in Tallahassee, Washington correspondent and political editor. While covering national politics, he also traveled extensively to South Africa, where he covered deepening unrest against the apartheid regime.

    In 1989, Harwood was named a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, where he spent the 1989-90 academic year. In 1991, he joined The Wall Street Journal as White House correspondent, covering the administration of the George H. W. Bush. Later Harwood reported on Congress. In 1997, he became The Wall Street Journal’s Political Editor and chief political correspondent.

    While at The Wall Street Journal, Harwood wrote the newspaper’s political column, “Washington Wire,” and oversaw the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. In March 2006, he joined CNBC as Chief Washington Correspondent.

    In addition to CNBC, Harwood offers political analysis on “NBC Nightly News” and PBS’ “Washington Week in Review,” among other television and radio programs. Harwood has covered each of the last eight presidential elections.

    With respect, this is not the bio of some fire breathing leftist. If this is the guy who freaks out Republican nominees out, what’s gonna happen when they face Putin?

  13. Dividist says:

    The 2nd World Series will always trump the 4th Presidential Debate.

    Even if the Yankees aren’t in it.

  14. stonetools says:

    Pro tips to aspiring moderators:

    1.In future debates, expect the candidates to act like hostile witnesses and prepare accordingly.
    2.Expect them to flatly deny embarrassing statements and to lie, obfuscate, and launch personal attacks on the questioners and on the media in general.
    3. Don’t be flummoxed, backtrack , or argue with them.
    4. Always have copies of embarrassing statements at hand so that you can confront the deniers directly in real time. It would be best if you could blow up such statements and project them on the TV while you ask the questions.
    5. When a politician goes off on some rant, follow up by directing him back to the question and asking him to answer.

    You are welcome, aspiring moderators. I am available for consultation for a reasonable fee :-).

  15. charon says:

    I hope the moderators for future debates learn something from the lack of preparation displayed by those moderators.

    Moderators need to prepare, do their homework, be prepared to expect and challenge lies with rebuttals and followups.

    Also, the leadoff question asking to name weaknesses like a job interview was so absurd and pointless (expect real answers: unlikely) that it set a very poor tone and set things off wrongfooted.

  16. John430 says:

    @C. Clavin: “… fewer people saw them lying their faces off.”

    So sayeth Cliif Clavin; biggest know-nothing on the planet.