When Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum moderate Wednesday night’s Republican primary debate, they won’t be running for office. But they will be at the forefront of a very important popularity contest.
The Fox News duo will kick off a coverage cycle that every TV-news executive hopes will reverse some of the recent trends of the medium, which has contended, like many other TV formats, with downturns in viewership and advertising dollars. The debate, says Baier, ought to be lively, and he and MacCallum — typically the faces of Fox News in all matters pertaining to elections — will have to be on their guard.
“I think the bottom line is that some candidates on this stage want to walk away with a moment that gets played over and over again,” he says.
The people who run Fox News — and its rivals — can only hope. TV-news outlets snare some of their biggest audiences during election coverage. There are primaries, debates, rallies, panels and speeches to televise, not to mention gaffes, scandals and, oh yes, stances on issues that matter to voters. The drama in this cycle will only be heightened by the travails of former President Donald Trump, who is enmeshed in historic legal trouble in four different cases even as he enjoys the bulk of support in the Republican party. Trump on Sunday said via social media that he will not take part in the Fox News debate. The former president is expected to instead show up in a taped interview with streaming-video former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, which will stream on X during the live event.
Trump doesn’t need to appear on TV to be part of the overall spectacle. “I have this calendar that shows all of the dates that have to do with the election, and now you have all of these dates that have to do with what’s going on in the courtroom and Trump indictments, always on top of each other,” says MacCallum. “It’s an extraordinary situation.”
Will it all be compelling enough to spur a swell in news audiences and the advertisers who might want to pitch them? “The primaries are the playoff season, and the election is the championship,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication. “The increased toxicity of political debate leaves some sponsors on the sidelines, companies that simply don’t want to be near those words or those personalities or those issues, and that has some cost. But at a certain point, the programming becomes the most-watched programing of the time and therefore attracts ad dollars.”
The medium could use the boost. Both Fox News Channel and CNN have grappled with a downturn in ratings this year, largely due to talent issues. Fox News parted ways with 8 p.m. mainstay Carlson in April and CNN has struggled to find a programming lineup that vies more readily with its competitors, particularly in primetime. MSNBC has found success in recent months by putting groups of its best-known personalities on air at moments of national import. After unveiling a new evening lineup in June, Fox News has seen its numbers stabilize, albeit not always at the levels it enjoyed with Carlson. It has also had to contend with what Fox Corp. said is a glut of lower-priced direct-response ads during a time when Madison Avenue has grown wary of news programming. The network still lures more viewers than CNN or MSNBC.
Better days could be ahead, at least by one measure. Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN are collectively expected to see an 8.4% uptick in ad revenue in 2024, according to projections from Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. Combined, the three cable-news outlets are seen winning nearly $2.23 billion in advertising in 2024, compared with nearly $2.06 billion by the end of this year. All three are projected to see ad dollars grow year over year, according to Kagan, with Fox capturing almost $992.4 million; MSNBC $660.1 million; and CNN nearly $576.2 million.
“We are seeing healthy demand across multiple categories” for ad time in Wednesday’s primary debate telecast, says Jeff Collins, executive vice president of advertising at Fox News Media. “We are encouraged by the demand we are seeing here, and that should translate into strong demand in the primary season in the first quarter of 2024,” he adds. NBCUniversal and Warner Bros. Discovery, the owners, respectively, of MSNBC and CNN, declined to comment on Madison Avenue’s interest in their coming 2024 coverage.
Despite the ad uptick, any increases would no doubt be offset by viewers’ move away from traditional TV. The subscriber base for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC is expected to shrink by 5.7% by the end of 2024, according to Kagan, to 195.4 million, compared to 207.4 million in 2023. Such a dynamic would also means a downturn in distribution revenue — a critical component in cable economics. In years past, no matter how advertising was affected by the economy, media companies knew they could always count on steady revenue from their cable and satellite affiliates, who would transmit their networks so long as they were popular and well-watched. But in 2024, the three news networks’ distribution revenue is projected by Kagan to fall 2%, to nearly $3.29 billion.
Little wonder, then, that other TV-news outlets have already unveiled plans that will help them cover politics more closely. A new, overhauled schedule from CNN includes two personalities known for their Washington coverage — Kaitlan Collins and Abby Philip — in primetime. NBC News will in the fall launch Kristen Welker as the new moderator of the long-running public-affairs program “Meet The Press.” ABC News has enlisted the former CNN international correspondent Selina Wang as a senior White House correspondent. CBS News recently launched a new streaming program, “America Decides,” that features many operatives from its Washington bureau talking over the latest news in the political cycle.
Some outlets won’t even wait until Wednesday to join the charge. MSNBC on Sunday evening ran special coverage aimed at previewing the primary debates. The moderators were Jen Psaki, the former Biden White House press secretary, and veteran Ali Velshi.
The networks will have to stay on their guard for new challenges. The Republican National Committee in early 2022 announced that it had withdrawn from the non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-partisan organization that has organized general election debates since 1987. The RNC said at the time that it intended to find other means of presenting the GOP line on issues to voters.
And when debates and town halls do take place, the live in-studio crowd can pose a formidable threat to the quality of the proceedings. CNN found this out earlier in 2023 when Kaitlan Collins moderated a live event with Trump, only to be put off by an energetic live crowd that was vocal in its support for the the former president.
“I think everything has seemed more unruly. I think people are just sort of more in a mood to spit things out, and I think we are all more aware of it in our daily lives,” says MacCallum. “I certainly hope everybody is respectful of the event, but when you do something like this, outbursts can be an issue.”
Journalists don’t have the overall business of their networks top of mind when they are in the thick of their jobs, says Baier. “My brain doesn’t work that way. I have always been of the mindset that if you build it, they will come,” he adds. Plenty of people at Fox News and other news outlets will no doubt be ready to see what type of audiences Baier and MacCallum were able to help construct once the final Republican candidate has uttered their last talking point.
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