With Donald Trump On The GOP Card, CNN Expects To Reap Ratings, Dollars

With Donald Trump On The GOP Card, CNN Expects To Reap Ratings, Dollars

By Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

If the commercials promoting CNN’s Republican primary debate Wednesday make it look like a highly anticipated pay-per-view boxing event, it means they’re working.

“That was the idea,” CNN President Jeff Zucker said last week. “This is Round 2 of a heavyweight bout.”

Or the second episode of a wildly successful hit show. CNN anticipates its largest audience ever when Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and nine other contenders meet Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. It would achieve that plateau by getting 75 percent of the 24 million viewers who watched the first GOP debate of the 2016 presidential race on the Fox News Channel on Aug. 6, the surprise must-see TV event of the summer.

The previous audience high for a presidential primary debate on a cable news channel was the 8.7 million who watched CNN’s coverage of the Democratic contenders’ face-off on Jan. 5, 2008. In the 2012 cycle, in which President Barack Obama did not have a primary challenger, none of the Republican debates drew more than 7.6 million viewers.

The difference is Trump, the breakout star of the 2016 campaign, who is driving up ratings, interest and poll numbers with his at times outrageous remarks that would have sunk establishment politicians. His ratings magnetism as a candidate continued when his appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” boosted the late-night program to its largest Friday audience in 18 months.

Strong demand for advertising time during the CNN debate has sent prices for a 30-second spot soaring into the $150,000-$200,000 range. Advertising on the main debate with the 11 top polling candidates is sold out, although there are only four commercial breaks in the telecast, compared with the 15 typical during three hours of CNN’s prime time.

“This is a television series that Trump has launched,” said Joe Peyronnin, a former TV news executive and associate journalism professor at Hofstra University in Hemptstead, N.Y. “The Republicans hope it gets canceled. In the meantime, it’s got everybody’s attention.”

The real estate mogul and reality TV host is well aware of his ratings impact. He’s publicly asked CNN to donate $10 million of the profits from its debate to veterans’ groups in return for his participation.

CNN has steadfastly declined to comment on Trump’s request, which, like many of his statements, he’s repeated ad nauseam. But it’s highly unlikely that the network would seriously consider the idea, which would be tantamount to compensating a news subject for an appearance.

CNN executives fully expect Trump — never one to pass up an opportunity to be seen by another massive TV audience — to be on the debate stage in front of the plane that served as Air Force One for President Reagan.

Although it’s clear that CNN will do much better financially than it would have were Trump not a part of it, Zucker said some of the money is being plowed into the network’s commitment to political coverage. “CNN has made a tremendous investment this year in politics,” he said. “We’ve dramatically expanded our political reporting team both in digital and television. Recouping that investment is part of the strategy.”

But Zucker is aware of how Trump has transformed the conversation about the campaign. He’s seen this before. When he was a young executive producer at NBC’s “Today” in 1992, he seized on the third-party candidacy of business mogul Ross Perot that had galvanized the public’s interest. Zucker tossed out the standard morning show format and allowed Perot to take phone calls from viewers for an hour or more.

“There was a lot of excitement around that race, and this is very reminiscent of that election,” Zucker said.

But media critics have carped that Trump is getting an inordinate amount of press coverage compared with the other candidates. Zucker acknowledges that there have been discussions within CNN about how much Trump is too much and whether his effect on ratings is driving the coverage. Zucker believes the time his network has devoted is justified.

“As a front-runner, he is going to attract the most amount of attention,” Zucker said. “I’m not going to apologize for the fact that he accepts our invitations to come on the air when many of the others, whom we invite just as much as we invite Mr. Trump, do not accept those invitations. I’m not going to penalize him just because the others decline to come on. That’s their decision, and certainly their prerogative. That doesn’t mean we don’t do interviews with him. I feel very comfortable with our proportion of (Trump) coverage. I think that’s borne out in his position in the race and the amount of interest the audience has in the story.”

Trump made the Fox debate an even bigger story by attacking one of its moderators, Megyn Kelly, for her tough questions about the candidate’s disparaging statements about women. CNN’s debate moderator, Jake Tapper, anchor of “The Lead” and the Sunday Washington program “State of the Union,” said he wasn’t concerned about becoming the target of a Trump insult if the candidate deemed the questioning Wednesday as unfair.

“I’m a big boy,” Tapper said, noting that Trump already had described one of his queries as “stupid” when he appeared on “State of the Union.” “From the very beginning, I’ve treated him as I’ve treated other candidates.”

Zucker said Fox News did “a great job” with the first debate. The only difference in CNN’s approach will be an attempt to get more cross talk between the candidates. “We’re going to be reading what other people have said about them,” Tapper said. “We want them to debate not with me but each other.”

Tapper has been watching debates since the 1984 presidential debate showdown between Reagan and Democrat Walter Mondale. But the unexpected turns in the 2016 campaign have heightened the excitement of being a part of Wednesday’s event.

“I really have no idea how this movie ends,” he said. “It’s a mystery. Playing a small part in it is a huge honor. A dream.”

Photo: Jake Tapper, who will be moderating the Republican debate this week. Victoria Pickering/Flickr

Donald Trump Keeps Boosting TV News Ratings

Donald Trump Keeps Boosting TV News Ratings

By Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Donald Trump’s surprisingly durable campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination continues to be ratings rocket fuel for TV news.

An hourlong interview with Trump taped earlier in the day with CNN’s New Day co-anchor Chris Cuomo drew 1.1 million viewers in the 9 p.m. ET time slot on Wednesday, according to Nielsen. The audience is the largest for the cable news channel in that hour since April 28, when it covered the anti-police riots in Baltimore. Among viewers in the 25-to-54 age group, the hour scored 369,000.

CNN was still second in the hour to The Kelly File on Fox News Channel, which had 2.6 million viewers (Martha MacCallum filled in for the vacationing Megyn Kelly). But Fox News has already seen what Trump can do to its ratings, as the channel’s Republican primary debate drew a record-setting 24 million viewers on Aug. 6.

CNN will air the next GOP debate, scheduled for Sept. 16 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and there already is anticipation among some in the TV news industry that the audience could be even larger.

Before the CNN interview aired, all three major cable news networks went live around 7 p.m. ET with Trump’s news conference and “town hall” appearance in Derry, N.H. MSNBC and CNN saw a lift in their audience levels compared to earlier in the week, while Fox News, which typically leads in the hour, was about the same.

Trump also boosted the Sunday morning audience for NBC’s Meet The Press to its highest level since Feb. 9, 2014. NBC political director Chuck Todd interviewed Trump while he stumped in Iowa, the real estate mogul’s first appearance on the program as a candidate.

The extended coverage on cable news indicates that Trump’s candidacy has transitioned from what looked like a novelty to a full-blown movement as he remains the front-runner in every poll of Republican contenders. But the ratings are likely making it an easy decision to spend more time on him.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures after arriving for jury duty at Manhattan Supreme Court in New York, August 17, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Prospects Fading For ‘NBC Nightly News’ Anchor Brian Williams’ Return

Prospects Fading For ‘NBC Nightly News’ Anchor Brian Williams’ Return

By Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Many in the media business believe that the future looks bleak for suspended NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.

NBC News executives are in the midst of an internal review into Williams’ reporting, and it will be at least five more weeks before a decision is made on whether he returns. Williams was benched in February after falsely stating that he was in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Speculation that Williams is a goner heated up last weekend after several reports based on unnamed sources said NBC’s review found numerous situations in which the anchor publicly embellished statements about his reporting. Some competitors even suggested that NBC was behind the leaks as a pressure tactic to get Williams to resign and let the network reduce or get out of its contractual obligation to pay him more than $50 million over the next five years.

But NBC News Chairman Andy Lack still hasn’t given up on the idea of bringing Williams back. Lack is also in no rush to decide, according to executives close to NBC News who were not authorized to speak publicly.

As NBC News president in the 1990s, Lack groomed Williams to be the successor to Tom Brokaw and remains close friends with him.

“If there is a path back, he is going to want to find it,” one of the executives said.

NBC declined to comment.

The chatter among members of the TV news industry — many of whom were in Washington, D.C., this weekend for the annual White House Correspondents’s Association dinner — was that it was difficult to see that path. “If there was, don’t you think we’d be hearing about it by now?” an NBC News veteran said.

One possible scenario is that Lack vouches for Williams because of their long relationship, puts him back in the anchor chair but strips him of his managing editor title. Lack would then assure the public that he would keep a close watch on Williams. However, no one is betting on that happening.

Lack does have to be mindful of his bosses at NBC parent Comcast Corp., who have little patience for sustained bad news and are not afraid to cut their losses. Comcast demonstrated that last week when the cable giant decided to kill its proposed $54-billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable amid heavy criticism from consumer advocates.

However, there is no truth to reports that suggested NBC wanted to get the Williams issue resolved before upfront ad sales for the 2015-16 season begin next week, people in the industry said.

Advertisers who spend about $450 million a year on the network evening news are going to base their commercial buys on pricing and ratings guarantees no matter who is in the anchor chair, the people said. Many of the products advertised on the broadcasts are found in medicine cabinets, and their media buyers are not particularly sensitive about program content.

Under the terms of his suspension, Williams is muzzled by NBC and cannot respond to the negative stories about further alleged problems with his reporting.

Those issues, according to the leaked accounts, all have to do with exaggerated and inaccurate statements Williams has made about his coverage on talk shows, interviews, or the banquet circuit. An NBC News executive said there was no word of any falsehoods that appeared on his newscast.

Even if the results of the review leave an opening to bring Williams back, Lack also will have to consider the effect on his organization’s morale.

There has been no public statement from anyone at NBC News calling for Williams to return to the anchor chair. His support among rank-and-file employees in the division is said to be thin.

There is also the issue of unseating current anchor Lester Holt, who has become the first solo African-American network evening news anchor because of Williams’ suspension.

Aside from the historic aspect of Holt’s status, his colleagues hold the veteran of the news division in high esteem.

Since Holt took over, NBC Nightly News ratings have slowly eroded at a rate that one evening news competitor said should have the network “moderately” concerned. The broadcast has slipped into second place in total viewers behind ABC World News Tonight With David Muir while remaining about even in the advertiser-favored 25-to-54 age group.

But it has not been the full-out ratings collapse that could have happened when a popular anchor is yanked from a program.

Perhaps another sign that Williams’ prospects for coming back are fading is that he came up twice in Saturday Night Live cast member Cecily Strong’s monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

Up until then, NBC’s late-night hosts and comedy programs, all under the supervision of executive producer Lorne Michaels, had steered clear of making light of Williams’ situation. The anchor had been a popular guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, once hosted SNL and is friendly with the host of Late Night With Seth Meyers.

Photo: Steve Rhodes via Flickr