CNN got things started with its intro video at about 8:42 p.m. and the opening statements started at 8:48 p.m. This post and a subheadline initially said the debate actually started at 9 p.m. based on an earlier CNN promo ad and official debate documentation from last month that cited "the 9 p.m. ET Republican Presidential Primary Debate." A CNN spokesperson did not dispute that start time when The Fix inquired Monday.
Even the campaigns seemed to think it was 9 p.m.
Before the Super Bowl early this year, NBC ran a 30-second promo touting the event as an “all-day party” on the network, beginning with the “Today” show in the morning and ending with “The Tonight Show” after the Lombardi Trophy had been handed out. The time of the game — you know, the actual Super Bowl — was nowhere to be found. An onscreen graphic told viewers that coverage started at noon, even though the NFL’s championship contest didn’t begin until 6:30 p.m.
The approach is increasingly common when it comes to big sporting events on TV.
CNN appears to be trying a similar strategy to get viewers to tune in early for Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas — emphasizing the “pre-game” coverage schedule while obscuring the true start time.
There’s currently a countdown clock during telecasts (“New Year’s Rockin’ Eve”-style), but the ticker winds down to 6 p.m. Tuesday, which is not even when the main event starts. It's merely the start of pre-debate analysis for the undercard debate, featuring long-shot candidates Mike Huckabee, Lindsey O. Graham, Rick Santorum and George Pataki. The main event with leading candidates including Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson apparently starts at 9 p.m.
Not that you can find that start time noted in many places. CNN’s original promo, which began airing before Thanksgiving, informed viewers that the debate would indeed begin at 9.
More recently, however, CNN has advertised the debates — plural — as starting at 6 and 8:30.
On CNN.com, a weekend news story bore the headline, “What time is the #GOPDebate? And everything else you need to know.” This allegedly helpful explainer article told readers that “CNN’s coverage of the first debate will begin at 6:00 p.m. ET and coverage of the second debate will start at 8:30 p.m. ET.” It even mentioned that “CNN will also offer a live stream of the debate on CNN.com’s homepage and across mobile platforms from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET.”
So, you can tune in even earlier online! But you still can’t know what time the #GOPDebate really is.
I emailed a CNN spokeswoman to ask for a rundown of the debate-night schedule. This was apparently a difficult request. I was referred to a second spokeswoman for assistance and did not immediately hear back.
At worst, viewers who don’t read The Fix (side note: What’s wrong with them?) may be mildly annoyed when they turn on their TVs Tuesday, only to discover that the action doesn’t begin when they thought it would. This isn’t a huge deal.
But it does subtly reinforce Trump’s criticism of CNN and other debate carriers when he made that ridiculous request for a $5 million appearance fee. The suggestion — made in his uniquely Trump-y way — was that CNN and others have turned the debates into cash grabs instead of civic responsibilities.
As I’ve argued before, there’s nothing wrong with informing the public and making a buck at the same time. But appearance-wise, blatantly trying to extend viewership with a murky start time — to advertisers’ delight, no doubt — isn’t a great look.