As it turns out, NBC needn’t have worried. According to Nielsen ratings, 15.3 million viewers caught the rhetorical battle on Wednesday night — which featured highly rated performances by former HUD secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). An additional 9 million viewers piled up on the debate’s live stream, according to the network. How does that compare to history? Well, the October 2015 clash on CNN between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) scored 15.5 million viewers — though that broadcast was deeper into the electoral timeline and featured a binary square-off between two recognizable figures. In January 2016, another Clinton-Sanders debate brought in 10.2 million viewers.
By contrast, Wednesday night’s affair involved a somewhat bewildering exchange of fragmented policy planks and some faces — Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, for example — that the public is just now glimpsing for the first time.
The numbers matter on several levels. First: Ratings, for better or worse, are how cable-news networks keep score. They issue competing press releases saying how the latest Nielsen figures show how they’ve socked it to one another. Their fans, too, take these petty fights to social media. (Can you picture newspaper executives dissing each other’s circulation numbers?)
Second: Money. Good ratings translate into robust ad revenue.
Third: Motivation. NBC captured 8.67 viewers, Telemundo 719,000 and MSNBC 5.87 million. That last figure is gigantic, way beyond what the cable-news network can expect for even a highly watched prime-time hour. Network table-setter Rachel Maddow, for example, averaged 2.6 million nightly viewers in May. The debate total signals that perhaps the Maddow faithful — the burning core of the Democratic base — will not be distracted from the 2020 presidential race.
Fourth: A happy Democratic National Committee (DNC). Not just anyone can drag a camera into the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. Rights to broadcast the events were contracted specifically to NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo. They have the exclusive for this two-night haphazard articulation of talking points from 20 Democratic candidates.
That exclusive stems from the convening power of the DNC, which has criteria for deciding what networks are suitable for interrogating its people for a national audience. Earlier this year, the DNC declined to partner with Fox News over concerns that the No. 1 cable-news network had grown too tethered to the Trump administration. Debates about that decision still roar.
There is nothing approaching journalistic purity in this setup. The partnering news organization — be it NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo or CNN or Fox News — needs a major political party to approve of its treatment of the candidates. And the party is rooting for the network, too; it wants exposure for its candidates. Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told the Erik Wemple Blog after appearing on an MSNBC segment, “We had a lot of eyeballs and I’m confident we’re going to have just as many tonight and possibly even more," he said, adding that there’s “excitement” for the Democratic lineup. “We wanted to maximize eyeballs. The more people that watch our candidates, the more people are gonna like our candidates.”
Stuart Stevens, a Republican political consultant, wrote in a recent Post op-ed: “Between the staging and promotion of the debates, sponsorship by a large corporation in the news business starts to look a lot like sponsorship by any large corporation.”
Pressure to produce big viewership numbers creates a gnarly incentive for the host cable network to hype their own event, as though any cable-news network needs added impetus for such activity. Pregame analysis of a political debate is no more edifying than pregame analysis of a football game, yet that’s what MSNBC has been doing for days. One example emerged on Wednesday as host Craig Melvin was chatting with reporter Peter Alexander about the campaigns’ preparations:
Melvin: What’s your sense, Peter, as you have a number of these candidates who are looking to create, perhaps, some sort of moment: Is Joe Biden and his team basically looking to avoid some sort of gaffe? Do they need to create a moment? Do they just need to get out of this thing unscathed?Alexander: As evidenced by that poll you showed, Craig, obviously the status quo in terms of polling is good for Joe Biden. They realize when you’re on top, there’s only one way to go — that’s down. They’re going to try to avoid that, certainly.
And let’s not forget the time that MSNBC host declared of the Wednesday debate, “It’s ‘go’ time.” At that moment, the MSNBC countdown clock indicated that there were precisely nine hours left before the debate was to begin.