Who could turn the channel? (Screenshot: CNN) (Erik Wemple/CNN)
Media critic

On July 30 and July 31, CNN will be hosting a pair of Democratic primary debates in Detroit. For each showdown, there will be 10 candidates on the stage.

On Thursday night, CNN assembled 12 people to decide on which of the two nights the candidates would be appearing.

It was called “The Draw” — a programming block designed, perhaps, as an experiment with this inspiration: How complicated and baroque can we make the process of dividing a pool of candidates into two separate lots? If you’ve used the “poop cruise" or the MH370 coverage or the election-night holograms as punchlines for CNN, you now have a new one.

Just for the record: The deployment included three CNN personalities — Brianna Keilar, Victor Blackwell and Ana Cabrera — dropping candidate cards and date cards into separate boxes, then pulling them out and pairing each candidate with a date. There were an additional eight people on an analysis panel — which is to say, a basketball team and three subs dedicated to chatting about debate matchups, the first night vs. the second night, adjacencies, whatever. Wolf Blitzer hosted the whole, embarrassing shebang.

At one point in the proceedings, panel host Anderson Cooper, flanked by three pundits to his left and four to his right, said: “We’ll reveal their podium positions next.” That was the tease before a commercial break. Afterward, the eight-person insta-analysis operation brought insight to the matter. “[Joe] Biden is now the pinata,” said panel member Van Jones, in reference to Biden’s position on the second-night stage, in between rivals Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.).


Analyze the podium positions, please. (Screenshot: CNN) (Erik Wemple/CNN)

And the stakes? Well, at CNN, they never lose altitude. “HUGE STAKES BEFORE CNN DEMOCRATIC DEBATE,” read the chyron before a Democratic debate. That was April 2016. “It’s debate night for the Republicans. The candidates are here. The pressure is on, and the stakes are higher than ever." That was Jake Tapper in September 2015, before its Republican presidential debate. “This is the final Republican debate of 2015. The stakes could not be higher." That was another CNN host at a December 2015 Republican debate in Las Vegas.

Now it’s July 2019, a year and several months before the 2020 presidential election. The helium inside the CNN stakes balloon is robust. “Just to give a sense for our viewers of how high the stakes are, not to use that cliche yet again, how many of these 20 will likely go on to the next debate?” asked Cooper at one point.

To mention nothing of the stakes for CNN itself. The Democratic National Committee announced it would be holding 12 primary debates over 2019 and 2020, meaning there are a lot of partnership opportunities down the road. Big ratings and great exposure opportunities await. As this blog has written before, CNN has made these events a specialty, and they’re known for pulling them off without a hitch.

Overkill just happens to be a key ingredient of the special-event recipe. “The Draw” took a full hour of mind-numbing procedure and analysis.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: CNN, where the stakes are always high. Or sky-high. Or never been higher.

David Byler: CNN, don’t make the same mistake NBC did in setting your Democratic debate lineups

Jennifer Rubin: CNN debate rules: Mostly good. Only mostly.