From left, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Rand Paul take the stage for a debate, hosted by CNN, last year in Las Vegas. (Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Media critic

What are the chances that the Republican National Committee (RNC) would partner with MSNBC on a GOP debate? “Beyond the ideological issues,” says RNC Chief Strategist and Communications Director Sean Spicer, “no one watches it.”

And what are the chances that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) would partner with Fox News on a Democratic primary debate? “Ha ha ha ha,” was the initial response of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz when Fox News’s Bret Baier asked her about just that topic last month (she went on to give a highly noncommittal response).

In this bifurcation CNN has spotted an opportunity to exert ownership over campaign 2016. With a straight-up-the-middle coverage plan, the 24/7 cable network managed to snare six primary debates in campaign 2016, four with the Republicans and two with the Democrats. In addition, it has cranked out seven town hall presentations, including one with President Obama on gun violence. Four of the town hall events have been with the Democrats, two with the Republicans. “We are the cable network that doesn’t choose sides,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “We have the advantage of having, I believe, more access to both parties than any other channel.”

On Monday night, CNN aired a package of interviews with all five remaining presidential candidates from both parties in a three-hour extravaganza. The #FinalFive night came together for CNN after Donald Trump last week declared that he wouldn’t be participating in the Fox News debate previously scheduled for Monday night, effectively pulling the plug on the polemics. CNN began trying to turn Fox News’s loss into its gain pretty quickly after things unraveled. “When the debate was canceled and the Republican candidates changed plans to come to Washington on Monday, we saw that as an opportunity to do something which is rare — to have the candidates in our election center, which is based in Washington, and so that’s when we started to work on the special,” says Feist.

Among the news moments to come out of the night was this claim by Trump to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “They want to have a prime-time special on Fox network where Megyn Kelly interviews me,” said Trump. “I said, what’s in it for me? What do I get out of it? You’re going to get great ratings, what do I get out of it? They want a prime-time special. I said no, I won’t do it.”

As usual, Trump’s claims were frivolous — so what if Fox News invited him for an interview? That stuff happens all the time. But the chattering Web classes picked it up, completing something of a reversal: On a night when Trump was supposed to be exclusively on Fox News blustering about the world, here he was belittling Fox News on CNN. He also appeared in a pretaped interview on Fox News’s “Hannity.”

The package boosted CNN’s ratings among the key advertiser demographic of viewers aged 25-54, where it eked out a victory over Fox News. In total prime-time viewers, however, Fox News whipped CNN by 1 million with its standard programming. Credit CNN for vision, hustle and hard work, though Fox News itself isn’t blown away. “For them, it is a good approach,” says Michael Clemente, Fox News executive vice president of news editorial, of his rival network’s relish for specials. CNN’s pattern, says Clemente, amounts to a “lurch” from special event to special event, with ratings surging for big news moments. As for Fox News, says Clemente, “we have plenty of debates and town halls and special guest bookings, but we don’t have to sort of create events in order to get a number.”

The numbers themselves attest to the point: Fox News has dominated cable news ratings for a decade and a half. And even with CNN’s push on debates, town halls and interviews, in the first quarter of 2016 (through March 21) it trails Fox News in total prime-time viewers by 1 million and by 27,000 in the 25-54 demographic. CNN’s growth in both of those categories over the same period last year, however, is phenomenal: around 170 percent and 140 percent, respectively. CNN says it’s closer to Fox News than at any point since 2008.

As for Fox News’s event work, it has hosted five debates (together with Fox Business Network), though they’ve all been on the Republican side. It has also done two Republican town halls and one (very good) Democratic one. More such events may be in store: “Whether we have a debate or do more town halls with them, I’m not sure it would make a big difference,” says Clemente, speaking to the editorial merit of the setup. Fox News is working on a one-hour, inside look at the Trump campaign with reporting from “Special Report” anchor Bret Baier and senior national correspondent John Roberts. Sounds promising, so long as it doesn’t default into another interview of Trump.

CNN’s event-full 2016 strategy wasn’t planned out in 2016. Mark Preston, executive editor of CNN Politics, tells this blog that the brainstorming extends at least as far back as December 2013. That’s when he discussed with Salem Media Group the prospect of partnering on key events in the 2016 cycle. The rationale was based in large part on audience: Those who listen to Salem’s radio network, including the show hosted by conservative brand Hugh Hewitt, “don’t necessarily watch CNN,” says Preston. And CNN viewers, likewise, aren’t necessarily natural Salem radio fans. The two outfits, accordingly, could cross-pollinate.

Not to mention cross-opinionate. During the first CNN Republican debate, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, Hewitt said to the assembled GOP candidates: “I think all of you are more qualified than former secretary of state Clinton,” said Hewitt.

Journalistic finger-waggers may not have appreciated that moment, but the partnership with Salem proved durable. And elastic, too.

In October, CNBC held its debacle debate. Candidates balked at the “gotcha” questions, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) fashioning a particularly mordant piece of real-time media criticism. The RNC, too, was watching and disapproving; it swiftly “suspended” its partnership with NBC News — CNBC’s corporate sibling — to hold a debate in Houston in late February. That decision put NBC’s debate role in limbo.

“I went to the RNC and said, ‘We’re not going to make a play on that debate,'” recalls Preston. Then he learned that “every other network” was making a play for the Houston debate. “And I said, ‘Okay, we’re in at that point.’ It was never our intention to go and steal the debate.” The RNC’s Spicer recalls, “There was no question there was a lot of interest.”

The RNC eventually handed the debate to CNN, which gladly accepted. What was the rationale? “A lot of it has to do with ability to move quickly,” says Spicer, likening a debate to putting on a Super Bowl. “You have to have a lot of trust in the team and know that they’re adaptable.” Speaking generally about CNN, Spicer says, “They are pros up and down from [CNN Worldwide President] Jeff Zucker at the top all the way to the contributors and the production team and their reporters. They have a complete team of top-notch professionals.”

Asked to engage in a gauche comparison of Fox News and CNN on the debate front, Spicer refused. “The Fox and CNN folks put on top-notch productions,” he says.

The peculiarities of the 2016 debate setup yielded other opportunities for CNN. On the Republican side, the debate stage was crowded with a field of candidates measuring in the teens. Laments from less-prominent candidates about their lack of airtime birthed thousands of Twitter-borne witticisms. And on the Democratic side, the DNC initially planned a measly six debates (though it later relented and added more). Candidates, it seemed, needed other ways of reaching a national TV audience.

“The town halls were a political programming opportunity,” says Preston, who says he looks at the political calendar three or four weeks ahead of time to spot holes that can be filled with a CNN event. Town halls differ from debates in that the candidates don’t take the stage at the same time — something that they can do only at party-sanctioned debates, part of a coercive and anti-democratic exclusivity arrangement. Yet the town halls give an event-heavy network like CNN something to promote, and then rehash the following day.

See how CNN’s town halls packed its event calendar in recent months:

Jan. 7: Obama Gun Town Hall
Jan. 12: State of the Union
Jan. 25: Iowa Democratic Town Hall
Feb. 1: Iowa Caucuses
Feb. 3: New Hampshire Democratic Town Hall
Feb. 9: New Hampshire Primary
Feb. 11: PBS Democratic Debate — Simulcast
Feb. 17: S.C. GOP Town Hall — Greenville
Feb. 18: S.C. GOP Town Hall — Columbia
Feb. 20: Nevada (D)/S.C. (R) Primaries
Feb. 23: Nevada (R) Primary
Feb. 23: S.C. Democratic Town Hall
Feb. 25: CNN GOP Debate —  Houston
Feb. 27: S.C. (D) Primary
March 1: Super Tuesday (AL, AK, AR, CO, GA, MA, MN, OK, TX, TN,VT, VA, WY)
March 5: Super Saturday (Louisiana, Nebraska, Kentucky, Kansas, Maine)
March 6: CNN Democratic Debate — Flint, Mich.
March 8: Super Tuesday (HI, ID, MI, MS)
March 9: Simulcast Univision Democratic Debate
March 10: CNN GOP Debate — Miami
March 13: CNN Democratic Town Hall — Columbus, Ohio
March 15: Super Tuesday (FL, IL, MO, NC, OH)
March 21: CNN Presidential Prime-time Event, The Final Five Candidates
March 22: Western Tuesday Primary

Bolding added to highlight smart cablecraft: The CNN debate simulcasts — for PBS’s Feb. 11 Democratic debate and Univision-Washington Post’s March 9 debate — ginned up quick ratings victories. The PBS simulcast on CNN edged out PBS’s own viewership, 4.1 million viewers to 3.9 million viewers, and won the cable news night. With its simulcast of the Univision-Washington Post debate, CNN repeated the twofer, besting Univision and Fox News. Representatives for both PBS and Univision tell the Erik Wemple Blog that CNN was the only network to approach them about simulcasting.

When flight MH370 disappeared in March 2014, CNN covered it nonstop in part because it had no choice. With nearly 4,000 news professionals spread across the globe, the network had to deploy the resources in which it had invested. Otherwise, why have them? A similar dynamic applies to politics. According to a network spokeswoman, CNN has committed $40 million more to the 2016 race than the 2012 version, a great deal of it sunk into a platoon of 45 additional politics reporters. Those folks have helped the organization to do two things at once — report the news from the campaign trail while at the same time prepping all the questions and analysis for the special events. “Scale can have an impact on your ability to be nimble — to handle all the daily coverage and have separate teams working on town meetings and debates,” says Feist.

Though CNN has managed to secure broad bipartisan buy-in on debates and town halls, Fox News’s Clemente is ceding not a bit of middle ground. “We are the ones that go right down the middle all day long and the proof of that is — I don’t think any journalist of record would say we were pulling any punches in our Republican debates,” says Clemente. By contrast, he says, CNN has “done something” to accommodate Republican front-runner Donald Trump, an extensive focus of CNN programming. “Why would the leading Republican candidate be complimenting CNN for its coverage all the time and criticizing others?”

CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker has defended his network’s coverage of Trump, noting that he has been the front-runner since last summer and just says yes to interview requests.

The real story, suggests Clemente, is that CNN — occasionally chided on the right as the “Clinton News Network” — has “actually tasted, after 20 or something years of watching us, what it’s like to have some conservatives or independents or center-right people on air and, ‘Wow, surprise!’ People watch.”

“MS[NBC] has done a good job … getting back to the news during the day,” continues Clemente, complimenting the network on its move away from dayside lefty news analysis. “I think they’re the ones CNN needs to watch for because they’re doing more and more of a job covering the news and doing a pretty straight version of it.” Indeed, distinguishing between MSNBC and CNN daytime coverage of late requires some squinting — both appear driven by a need to plot the candidates’ move from venue to venue, rally to rally. MSNBC, too, got into the town hall biz early, with Rachel Maddow interviewing the Democratic field in South Carolina last November; a Democratic debate and several more town halls followed in 2016. The “Place for Politics,” however, is actually “The Place for Biased Politics,” as far as the RNC’s Spicer is concerned. “Their coverage is Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow … He has made some very offensive comments both about Hispanics and members of the Jewish faith and others that are of major concern. Any idea of us doing anything with the two of them is frankly a silly proposition.”

Even sillier propositions may lie ahead. Considering that the candidate field is dwindling along with the debates themselves, special-event opportunities are petering out. There are only so many ways to interview presidential candidates — alone, alongside other candidates; standing up, sitting down. Bet on CNN finding a new, hashtaggable way of presenting them to the public.