TV Networks Battle Over Which Will Host the Republican Debates

Mark Lennihan

Is it too early to talk about Republican primary debates? Not for network executives. Fox News will host the first debate of the 2024 campaign in August. But it’s not at all clear who will show up — if anyone. As for the rest of the debate schedule, the major cable news networks and media organizations are already vying for one of the coveted slots.

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The Republican National Committee, which is supposed to decide these things, has been noticeably reluctant to commit to anything. Given the volatility of the media landscape and the Republican candidate’s places within it, we may not know which network will get the rating bonanza until early in the fall.

The problem is Donald Trump’s aversion to every major network — including Fox News — and the DeSantis campaign’s dislike of CNN and NBC. Fox will be unable to host the dozen or so debates the RNC wants in order to showcase the party’s personalities and positions. In fact, the Republican National Committee wants the GOP presidential debates on as many platforms as possible.

Axios:

CNN boss Chris Licht has told the RNC that CNN would air the debate not just on its linear feed, but also potentially on the linear networks of other Warner Bros. Discovery channels, two sources told Axios. By including those channels, Licht has argued, CNN could reach more conservatives than Fox, as well as independent voters.

CNN’s pitch also includes distribution across its digital channels, and possibly streaming.

Licht also has offered to partner with a conservative-leaning outlet on the debates. That partnership, two sources told Axios, could include giving a journalist from the partner outlet a co-moderator spot.

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NBC Universal has gone CNN several times better. They’re offering to broadcast the debates over all of their cable channels.

NBC News’ pitch is being led in part by NBC News Group Chairman Cesar Conde and Carrie Budoff Brown, NBC News’ senior vice president for politics. “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt would moderate the debate, alongside a colleague from sister networks CNBC and Telemundo.

Holt, sources say, helped lobby the RNC for the bid, appeared at the RNC in February and began the presentation with an NBC sizzle reel.

A source in the room said NBC News pitched distribution across NBC News, MSNBC, Telemundo, CNBC, its streaming service NBC News Now and its digital channels.

NBC News and Holt were pushing the RNC to consider its bid at the same time longtime MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell acknowledged using “imprecise” language in a question to Vice President Harris that implied DeSantis didn’t want slavery taught in schools. DeSantis said he would boycott NBC News and MSNBC in response.

Meanwhile, the RNC pitched conservative news outlets NewsMax and Rumble to see if they’d be willing to host the debates, but costs scared them off.

Related: Pence and Christie to Team Up and Help Trump Secure GOP Nomination

The goal of getting as many eyeballs as possible in front of a screen to watch the GOP debate has revolutionized the entire debate process. While TV viewing has splintered among more and more choices, political committees are looking to explore new kinds of partnerships to maximize viewership.

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Nearly every network has partnered with tech firms to co-host debates during the past decade. Often, they also will partner with local outlets, digital news companies, radio networks or national newspapers to co-moderate debates.

Facebook, a source told Axios, did not pitch. Nor did Twitter, according to people familiar with the matter. Rumble, a conservative rival to YouTube, is partnering with Fox News on the first debate.

Politico, which has co-hosted debates in the past, did not participate in the pitching process this year, nor did Axios, sources told Axios.

One thing that won’t change: by the time primary season is over, we’ll all be heartily sick of debates.

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