In This Debate, CNN Is the Decider

A screen shows Vice Resident Kamala Harris during an interview in the spin room after the CNN presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in Atlanta, on Thursday, June 27, 2024. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
A screen shows Vice Resident Kamala Harris during an interview in the spin room after the CNN presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in Atlanta, on Thursday, June 27, 2024. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

The prime-time matchup on Thursday between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump represents an evening full of promise and peril.

Especially for CNN.

For the first time in decades, a single television network will have sole discretion over the look, feel and cadence of a general-election presidential debate. Unlike in past years, when an independent, nonprofit commission oversaw the contests, CNN has picked the moderators, designed the set and will choose the camera angles that viewers see.

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Lest any voters forget who’s in charge, the red CNN logo will be ubiquitous: Rival channels seeking to simulcast the event had to agree to leave the network’s on-air watermark untouched.

The debate, which starts at 9 p.m. Eastern time, could be the single most-watched moment of the presidential campaign, with consequences that ripple all the way to November. And much of the credit — or the blame — for what transpires on tens of millions of screens Thursday will land at CNN’s feet.

Leaders at the channel, which has endured a run of poor ratings and viewer apathy, say they don’t mind the pressure.

“The fact that we got it was something of a moment for us,” Mark Thompson, who became CNN’s chair in October, said in an interview between prep meetings in Washington. “Much of the reaction of the public, the rest of the media and other politicians is going to depend on President Trump and President Biden, who are the stars of the show.”

CNN outmaneuvered its competitors to land the event after Biden said in May that he would not cooperate with the Commission on Presidential Debates, which had sponsored general-election debates since 1987. Instead, Biden and Trump agreed to meet under the auspices of individual networks; a second matchup is scheduled for September on ABC.

Within the cutthroat TV news industry, the debate is seen as a marketing coup for CNN, which even at a time of austerity for cable television has stood out for ignominious reasons. The channel is currently on track for its lowest-rated month in prime time since 1991, with fewer than 100,000 average viewers a night among adults age 25-54, according to Nielsen.

And the last time CNN hosted a major televised political event, at a New Hampshire town hall in May 2023, it was widely perceived as a debacle. Trump unleashed a barrage of falsehoods and insulted his interlocutor, earning whoops from an audience of partisans who jeered the CNN anchor onstage.

The CNN leader behind that evening, Chris Licht, was fired a month later. Thursday’s debate is a significant test for his successor, Thompson, a former CEO of The New York Times and director-general of the BBC. Thompson, a Briton who recently became a dual American citizen, said he had looked to the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates for inspiration.

“I wanted a return to a very simple, classical format,” Thompson said.

Biden and Trump will meet in a closed studio in Atlanta with no live audience. Each candidate’s microphone will be muted when it is not his turn to speak.

“It’s been done in a way, at least in principle, that is designed to get as much light as possible, and not to be overwhelmed with heat,” Thompson said.

Best-laid plans, though, have a way of going out the window when it comes to live television.

The first meeting of Biden and Trump in 2020 devolved into chaos as Trump flouted the ground rules and relentlessly interrupted his opponent. The former president has also regularly accused CNN of bias.

On Thursday, much focus will be on the moderators, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, and their ability to keep proceedings on track. Neither anchor has moderated a general-election debate, but they both have experience at various Republican and Democratic primary debates sponsored by CNN, including an audience-free bout between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in March 2020.

The role of a moderator is often in dispute, and David Chalian, CNN’s political director, said that Thursday’s live debate “is not the ideal arena for live fact-checking.” Instead, Bash and Tapper would focus on “facilitating the debate between these candidates, not being a participant in that debate,” he said, noting that CNN analysts would assess the veracity of the candidates’ comments immediately after the telecast.

CNN’s efforts will play out on virtually every major television outlet.

It is offering other networks a free simulcast of its debate, albeit with stipulations that have irked some rivals. One requirement is that any mention of the event, including on-screen program guides, must include CNN in the title. CNN even distributed a specific graphic to be used for promotions, complete with a pair of giant CNN logos — and a tiny blank space allotted for other networks to include their own branding.

The other networks must also accommodate one of the biggest changes in CNN’s production: advertisements.

General-election debates have not previously included ads, a precedent set by CBS, which produced the first televised debate, in 1960. At the time, though, Robert Sarnoff, then-president of NBC, argued otherwise.

“It is an antiquated notion that a so-called public service program is not a public service if it is sponsored,” Sarnoff wrote. “By this odd reasoning, a broadcaster cannot serve the public unless he loses money.”

CNN apparently agreed; the channel will interrupt Thursday’s 90-minute event with two ad breaks, each set to last 3 1/2 minutes.

Under the simulcast rules, other networks cannot feature their own news anchors during those breaks, although they are free to sell their own ads.

Writer Nell Minow, a daughter of Newton N. Minow’s, who devised the first televised events in 1960, noted in an interview that TV networks are ultimately commercial enterprises. “Let’s face it: they have shareholders, and they operate as a business,” she said. Although her father, who died last year, preferred that an independent commission administer the presidential debates, Nell Minow said he would be happy that one was happening at all.

“They are the only time we get to see the candidates without being shiny and buffed up by their advisers,” she said. “If they sit down with Putin or Netanyahu, this is the person we’re going to see.”

There is some history of networks struggling to balance commercial imperatives with the civic duty of carrying debates.

In 1988, NBC objected when the debate commission proposed a date in September that conflicted with the Seoul Summer Olympics. At a contentious meeting, one NBC executive locked eyes with a commission member and intoned: “Miss, I don’t think you understand: The Olympics only take place once every four years.” (NBC eventually caved.)

Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chair of the debate commission, said in an interview that no one from CNN had reached out to him or his colleagues for advice on producing the debate. He said that he had never considered accepting advertising, saying that commercials “change the dynamics” for the viewer.

So, what are Fahrenkopf’s plans for Thursday?

“I’ll probably have a martini and watch,” he said.

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