After the second presidential debate between Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, many including the New York Times highlighted how aggressively the moderators steered the discussion and framed their questions. During the second Presidential debate, Anderson Cooper directly confronted Mr. Trump: “You described kissing women without their consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
However, debate moderators weren’t always this aggressive. The role of moderator has transformed significantly since the first televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. In previous presidential debates, they were commonly viewed as mundane and boring. Recent allegations of moderators attacking candidates demonstrate that networks will resort to sensationalism to achieve a larger viewership and retain audiences. Americans have become glued to the drama and the constant aggressive rhetoric between the candidates and moderators. Evidently, the spike in viewership pushes cable news networks to continue the standard in an effort to generate more revenue.
CNN reported in September that “over 80 million people tuned into debate” and declared it as the “most watched debate in US history.” To give some perspective, 124 million people watched the last Super Bowl, and 21 million people watched the NCAA Championship game. Despite the stunning viewership, the Super Bowl charges on average $5 million per 30-second ad, while networks hosting the debate charge on average $225,000 per 30-second ad. As indicated by the Commission on Presidential Debates, “All debates will be moderated by a single individual and will run from 9:00-10:30 p.m. Eastern Time without commercial breaks.” The debates draw audiences that rival Super Bowl programming. At the same time, it is relatively cheap for any PAC supporting a candidate to air an ad during the debate.
The mushrooming viewership in debates has been credited to online streaming through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and various news network websites. As a result, advertisements leak into the debate as it occurs. While watching the debate online, ads are evident before watching, around the video and throughout the web page. It is no surprise that the Clinton Campaign announced: “it has at least $30 million earmarked for digital ads.”
How did we come to this? Let’s take a step back in history. The non-profit organization Commission on Presidential Debates was founded in 1987. The organization hosted most of the Presidential debates since 1988. However, the main caveat is the organization was sponsored by both the Republican and the Democratic parties. Before the organization was established, The League of Women Voters sponsored presidential debates. In a move to control the debates, the bipartisan National Commission on Elections suggested that there be a “turnover sponsorship of Presidential elections to the two major parties.” To exclude third parties and keep the debates between the two major parties, Republicans and Democrats, both organizations agreed to put on the debates themselves.
As a result, it allowed for cable news to begin hosting the debates that favored the agenda of both Republicans and Democrats. At the same time the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed, CNBC was established in 1989 and Fox News in 1996. Also, CNN gained momentum and popularity after its exclusive coverage of the Gulf War in 1991.
With the rise of biased cable news covering the far left and far right political sides was established the foundation for “biased” presidential debates. The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. FEC (2010) allowed corporations and an unlimited number of money to flood the political election market. As a result, super PACs have been advertising heavily since the court decision.
The recent rise of debate viewership has allowed advertisers to flock to cable news networks. In 2012, about 67 million people tuned into the debate between President Obama and Governor Romney. With viewership growing over 30% since the last presidential election, cable news is in a frenzy to generate more audiences. With more audiences comes more revenue.
When Llyod Bentsen said to Dan Quayle, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” during the 1988 Vice Presidential debate, it was already considered a harsh and cunning comeback for a debate. Compare this with the second presidential election when Donald Trump proclaimed, “I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation” and threatened to jail Mrs. Clinton.
As more colorful rhetoric is exchanged between the presidential candidates, cable news will continue to fuel the drama by attacking candidates. The sensationalism Americans enjoy will continue to garner larger viewership while networks rack up advertisement revenue from these debates.