Promote Presidential Debate Like Prizefight -- And Ratings Soar

Las Vegas seemed perfectly apropos as the the site of last night’s Democratic presidential debate. The pre-event crawl on talked about the network airing the first prime-time square-off between the contenders — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, James Webb and Lincoln Chafee  — as if they were prepping for some Ultimate Fighting Championship in the "Octagon" cage.

“This will be the first time the Democratic candidates get in each others’ face,” the news network’s crawl stated. Visitors to the site were even encouraged to play “Debate Bingo.” You could have almost expected a “Tale of the Tape,” with stats on each candidate’s “reach.”

In the days leading up to the debate, there was plenty of chatter about an extra podium standing for Vice President Joe Biden, should he decide at the 11th hour to enter the ring. Well into the second hour of the debate, Broadcasting & Cable Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton tweeted the suggestion that to liven things up, Biden should drop down from the roof like a “Cirque du Soleil acrobat.”



CNN’s promotional pyrotechnics were to be expected. The all-news network certainly did likewise for the second Republican debate, as did Fox News for the first faceoff between the GOP hopefuls. From a bottom-line perspective, the strategy worked well, with the first crowded Republican presidential battle garnering 25 million viewers on Fox News and the second, on CNN, 23 million.

The Democratic debate didn’t do as well — but actually much better than CNN had anticipated. An estimated 15.2 million viewers tuned in.

The big difference from the GOP debates — and he’d be the first to agree — is that the Dems didn’t have reality TV star Donald Trump on the stage. Even when he’s not around, The Donald is an attention-grabber.

Of those on stage in Vegas, Bernie Sanders might have been driving “real-time conversation” since he was mentioned in almost 410,000 tweets, according to Amobee Brand Intelligence. Meanwhile, The Donald, while not in attendance, still garnered nearly 169,000 tweets, said Amobee.

Despite the pre-debate hype, or perhaps to leaven it, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was mostly all business in refereeing… sorry, in moderating the proceedings, in what was primarily a substantive dialog between the Dem White House hopefuls. Even conservative media critic Brent Bozell had praise for Cooper and the network often derided by the right as the “Clinton News Network.”

Given that the main event was handled in a most professional manner, perhaps the pre-fight hype wasn’t such a bad thing. If the show inside the tent is an informative, important one, and the carnival barker approach means what happens in Vegas, reverberates way beyond Vegas, it’s a good thing.

But let’s stop pretending these big shows are anything less than the industry’s favorite ratings port in a storm: live events that people still consider DVR-proof. Need evidence? How long did it take someone in your Facebook feed to ask “who won” the proceedings?

That sound you hear is Floyd Mayweather sighing with envy.

2 comments about "Promote Presidential Debate Like Prizefight -- And Ratings Soar ".
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  1. Michael Pursel from Pursel Advertising, October 14, 2015 at 4:37 p.m.

    This is great CNN. You promote like crazy, you tell everyone it will not be well viewed, and then when it's not well viewed, but OVER your projections, then you WIN. No wonder I like the Seattle Mariners so much. Sorry, we did place inside the Rino's debates because we knew the numbers would be there. Not so for the Ho Hum Dems debate. I will say though, that Anderson Cooper actually asked some very poignant questions and was pretty fair in his comments. We were impressed with how he handled the show.

  2. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, October 14, 2015 at 7:21 p.m.

    Dear J. Max Robins:

    Good job on the critique: "Promote Presidential Debate Like Prizefight -- And Ratings Soar,"  No one should faint about my positive assessment of a MediaPost Commentary.

    J. Max, you have hit the bullseye by addressing the "prizefight" metaphor.
    It's not just a figure of speech. It's grossly negligent journalism that is a profound disservice for the electoral process of United States.  More abomination!

    CNN Management (i.e., Jeff Zucker) and its Pathetic Toadies (News Anchors & Promotion Execs who tow the corporate line) are turning the important political process of discernment into a crude rooting sport. It's more than a shame.  It's a scandal from which CNN profits financially.  There show be a law against non-public service.

    However, CNN is not alone in the negligence department.  There's plenty of media blame to go around.  Even "PBS NewsHour" uses the term "sparring" to describe political debate.  Shameful.  And polling organizations have become unwitting accomplices.  Today, polls are not measuring electoral potential. They are measuring Twitter-like popularity.  Outrageous.  Big Data are Bad Data in this case.  It's no wonder that the likes of Trump and Carson enjoy a popularity usually reserved for the most freakish at an amoral carnival freak show.

    I look forward to re-reading the J. Max Robbins piece again.  He has tapped into a dreadful phenomenon that we ignore at peril to ourselves and our jury-rigged Democarcy fueled by carnival-rigged Capitalism.

    And that's the way it is, the night after the Vegas Prizefight on CNN.  Zucker's new low has yet to be reached.  Patience.  History says it's only a matter of time and network for him and us, his unwitting and witless viewers.  Talk about failing up!  His next success will be his first since "The NBC Today Show" of a prior century.

    Onwards and upwards.


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