CNN nailed the Erik Wemple Blog on Thursday, March 10. A countdown clock on CNN’s screen had been winding down for hours, and appeared to indicate that the CNN Republican Presidential Debate in Miami with moderator Jake Tapper would start at 8:30 p.m. ET. Laptop on lap, we plopped in front of the television, ready for polemics. Instead, we got what felt like extended pregame analysis and ceremony. A 30-minute fakeout. People were mad about it:
That wasn’t the first time. And it may not be the last, either.
In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog over the weekend (the main subject of which was CNN’s enterprising work on the 2016 election), CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist explained that the clock is a device targeted toward the average cable-news consumer, who checks in with the network episodically and thus may miss conventional ads for debates and town hall events. “It’s very simply a promotional mechanism that recognizes the fact that people are tuning in and out all the time and may not see and ad or tweet for an event,” says Feist.
So stipulated. But the gripe relates not to the purpose of the countdown clock; it’s all about the accuracy of the countdown clock. Why would such a device count down to more analysis and ceremony, instead of the actual debate? Feist responds that in the case of the March 10 debate, it introduced a number of events, including the national anthem, for which the candidates were onstage.
“Did we start the debate at exactly 8:30? That depends on your definition of when we started the debate,” says Feist.
Our take: The debate starts when the first question is posed.