This Saturday night is a great TV night: There’s a big NFL matchup between the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys, teams from two of the nation’s top five media markets that desperately need a win to remain in the playoff hunt. NBC will reair its live performance of “The Wiz,” starring Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige and Ne-Yo. And, of course, there are Christmas movies on ABC Family, Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel.
Oh, and there’s a Democratic presidential debate on ABC.
If you believe two of the debate's three participants, the scheduling of the event on a Saturday is a deliberate attempt by the Democratic National Committee to drive down viewership and help Hillary Clinton. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley told the New York Times this week that the DNC picked the date and time “out of a false sense that they have to circle the wagons around the inevitable front-runner.” A spokesman for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in the same article — with sarcasm dripping off the page — that he “guess[ed] Christmas Eve was booked.” Translation: This is about the worst time to hold a debate that people would actually watch.
On Friday, the Sanders campaign also accused the DNC of aiding Clinton by suspending its access to key voter information, saying the committee responded too harshly to a breach of Clinton campaign data by Sanders staffers.
The committee, naturally, denies it is trying to help any particular candidate. And motives are difficult to judge.
But, intentional or not, O’Malley and Sanders are right about the effect: A small ABC audience helps Clinton, who leads the nominating race by 25 points nationally and by about that same amount in Iowa (New Hampshire is closer). She’s the default nominee and has been for, well, years. For voters to latch on to someone else, they need to see someone else. And to see someone else, they need to be watching Bernie and Martin, not Dorothy and Toto.
(By the way, the last time Dorothy and Toto were on TV, Dec. 3, they drew 11.5 million viewers. The last time Bernie and Martin were on TV for a debate, Nov. 14 — also a Saturday — they attracted 8.5 million.)
Yes, this is the second straight Saturday debate for the Democrats, and the next one falls on Sunday, Jan. 17, following two NFL playoff games. Maybe the football games will be a great lead-in, as the DNC has suggested. Or maybe people won’t be in the mood for political football after seven hours of the real thing. We’ll see. Either way, the Democrats are competing with people’s weekend plans in half of their six primary debates.
It’s worth noting that the three weekend debates are on the three biggest broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), which still reach more homes than cable channels. It can be tough to convince those networks to bump weekday primetime programming. Just ask President Obama. Republican primary debates on ABC and CBS, notably, are also scheduled for Saturday nights in February.
But the Republican Party is giving its candidates 10 other chances to address the nation on weeknights. The first five have averaged almost 19 million viewers — twice the audience for the last weekend showdown among Democrats. Scheduling isn’t the only reason for the disparity; Donald Trump might have something to do with it. But it sure doesn’t look like the DNC is doing everything in its power to maximize the spotlight.
It's not just about the number of eyes on the debates, either. It's also about media coverage before and after. It's true that we live in the age of the 24/7 news cycle, but the cycle still turns faster on weekdays. There's a reason why the Friday-afternoon "news dump" is a thing. A Google News search for "Democratic presidential debate" on the day of and day after the last debate (a Saturday and Sunday) yields about 6,000 results. A search for "Republican presidential debate" on the day of and day after the most recent affair (Tuesday and Wednesday) produces more than 15,000 articles.
This could be good or bad for the eventual Democratic nominee, who will almost certainly have received less TV and media exposure than his or her Republican counterpart when the general election rolls around. The attention deficit could force the Democrat to play catch-up (as Republicans concluded happened in 2008 when the Democratic primary between Clinton and Obama was all the rage). Or it could protect the nominee from the kind of intramural beating (like the one Mitt Romney suffered four years ago), when too many debates (20) weakened him before the general, in the view of many Republicans.
Too much debate attention is one problem the Democrats definitely do not have.