How ratings-driven presidential debates are weakening American democracy

Matthew Jordan | Associate Professor of Media Studies


Anyone curious about the state of American democracy should simply tune into the GOP debate series, whose next episode airs Tuesday night on Fox Business Network.

If the first two debates are any indication, advertisers will be clamoring to buy up commercial spots, especially after the “buzz” generated last week: special conditions demanded by the candidates, Trump’s controversial – though dull – SNL appearance and the Ben Carson “bombshell” that he never applied to West Point (as he’d previously claimed). Yes, the debate has the makings of another ratings bonanza.

Televised presidential debates originated in the 1960s, during TV’s golden era. But back then, networks ran news divisions at a loss in exchange for being granted a licensed monopoly over public airways by the FCC. Candidates, in exchange for the publicity, answered hard questions posed by moderators.

Today, the rules of the debate game have shifted to reflect a new media reality, one in which broadcasters have a powerful financial interest in promoting debates centered on entertainment, rather than substantive discussions of policy issues.

In fact, today’s debates can be likened to World Wrestling Entertainment: there are heroes and villains, winners and losers, entrance themes and announcers, drama and intrigue (will Biden show?) – even an “undercard.”

Like it or not, the democratic process has been usurped by an endless, ratings-driven spectacle. And for networks – with the debates’ stripped-down production costs and high ratings – it’s like hitting the mother lode.

Record audiences yield record profits

Back in August, 24 million viewers watched the first GOP debate on Fox News. A month later, CNN drafted off this success, drawing 23.1 million viewers and selling commercials at US$200,000 apiece, roughly 40 times what they normally charge. And even though CNBC only drew 14 million viewers in the latest debate, it was the network’s most-watched show. Accordingly, they charged $250,000 per spot, a surge pricing rate that yielded record profits.

Tuesday night, 21st Century Fox and News Corp will list two of its properties – Fox Business Network (FBN) and the Wall Street Journal – as cohosts. It will be a big moment for the nascent network: their biggest show ever.

Even the undercard debate, which captured 1.6 million viewers for CNBC, will yield unprecedented audiences and profits for FBN, whose most-watched show drew a mere 152,000 viewers. No matter which network airs which show, the audiences this year dwarf anything seen in the 2012 GOP debates, which had a peak viewership of 7.6 million.

If, as Marshall McLuhan once speculated, the medium is the message, political rhetoric and modes of campaigning – at least for candidates whom TV talking heads call “electable” – have become indistinguishable from strategies used by TV networks to boost ratings.

In an age of slickly produced identity politics, the presidential debate series – part reality show, part melodrama – is a hit that bounces from network to network and features different personality types that appeal to different viewer demographics. Audiences get to “know” the contestants, and throwing their weight behind those they like and raging against those they hate, they’re deeply invested in their success or failure.

Though pundits and pollsters determine who wins or loses each debate, the media corporations who put on the shows – and who use the ongoing drama to pump up ratings for other shows – are the real winners.

Leveraging a hot commodity

And the candidates have noticed. Last week, while discussing the backlash CNBC received for asking hard questions, Rand Paul plainly expressed the new order:

We have a product that 20 million people want to watch. And so we should negotiate. People should bid for this. In fact, I think the networks ought to pay the Republican Party to air it.

Live debates, once commercial-free and sober, are now seen by politicians and networks as profitable entertainment products, viewed by audiences who have been conditioned to evaluate them as such. No matter how hard the media tries to comb over this bald reality beneath the ratings-driven political process, democracy in America has been hijacked by the entertainment industry.

Viewed through this lens, the orchestrated pushback against CNBC after the last debate by candidates and pundits (who largely parroted 50-year-old complaints about “trust” and “liberal bias”) is nakedly cynical.

With Fox leading the charge, it’s clearly a strategy to drive up ratings for Tuesday’s show – and for Fox Business Network to grab some of CNBC’s market share.

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Meanwhile, the GOP candidate demands last week for friendlier treatment from networks speak to a shift in power brought about by the profitability of the series, which the performers are now using as leverage.

In media we trust

As Donald Trump learned for 14 years on The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice, big ratings demand sensationalism, polarizing personalities, catchphrases and conflict.

Yet this creates risk for the presidential candidates. Even though running for president gives you free access to media and fundraising machines, candidates spend enormous sums on ads across multiple media platforms to build their brands, and they need to protect them.

Moreover, the candidates’ commercials build awareness of the debate series, which then helps the networks sell more ads and drive ratings for all the shows the candidates appear on. With the success of the two players – candidate and media conglomerate – so tightly intertwined, it’s no surprise the GOP performers want more favorable conditions in return for the added value they bring to networks.

Ultimately, if there’s “trust” at work in the age of ratings-driven democracy, it isn’t between the media and citizens they purport to serve.

Rather, the producers and the performers – in this case, the presidential candidates – trust that everyone will follow the rules, generating entertainment for audiences and ratings for advertisers, while protecting the brands of the celebrities who are auditioning for a recurring role in the ongoing spectacle.

And that you can bank on.

Read this article on The Conversation (Nov. 10, 2015).

What running for president can do for your resume

Nichola D. Gutgold | Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Schreyer Honors College Associate Dean for Academics 


In 1896 William McKinley ran for president by just sitting on his front porch. Instead of going to the people, he decided to stay home and invited people to come to him.

Nichola Gutgold

Nichola Gutgold

Could you imagine a presidential hopeful doing that now? Today’s candidate is everywhere: across the nation, around the world and thoroughly present on every form of media available.

A bid for the presidency now means a 24/7 on-the-job commitment – one that not only requires candidates to travel and speak extensively – but to look good from every angle as their image will likely live forever in social media. This pressure may seem acceptable, even reasonable, if you have a shot at winning. But what if you are dead last in every poll and so far from the top of the heap that you are barely mentioned at all?

With the addition of Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson as well as seasoned politician Mike Huckabee, the Republican presidential primary field gets even more crowded. There are now at least eight people vying for the Republican candidacy.

Will any one of them have a shot? And will anyone viably challenge Hillary Clinton for the democratic nomination in 2016?

It begs the question: why would anyone throw their hat in the ring for the presidency if every poll and sparsely attended speaking event points to failure? What could possibly motivate a candidate when the odds are very much against them? And do they influence the other candidates and the general debate in presidential vote years?

A crowd of one for Carol Moseley Braun

Consider a case from Illinois: During former Democratic Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun’s 2004 presidential bid, one headline read “A Crowd of One Meets Moseley-Brown” to describe one of her campaign speeches that she had hoped to make to a large group of supporters. That event was emblematic of her efforts and she dropped out after a brief bid and in 2010 she ran and lost for mayor of Chicago.

Reasons “dark horse” candidates run for president run the gamut.

Some candidates seem to truly believe that against all odds that they could win. Ask anyone who is running for president and regardless of what the polls say you are likely to hear: “because I absolutely believe I can win.” For some, getting a chance to articulate their vision on a bigger stage is gratitude enough. For example, in 1988, Democrat Pat Schroeder withdrew from the presidential race and embarked on a national tour to educate Americans on family policies. She wrote about her experience in her book, The Champion of the Great American Family.

While it may not be their main motivation, some campaigns have paved the way for candidates who historically have been left off the presidential history pages. Racially diverse and women candidates automatically bring those social issues forward when they run for president.

Just a few of the candidates who have helped to change the perception of what a president or vice president of the United States might look like include former Democratic Congresswoman, the late Shirley Chisholm who in 1972 challenged gender and race barriers, though she was unsuccessful in her bid.

The Patsy Mink campaign of 1972

Patsy Mink. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

A rarely remembered presidential hopeful in the same year was Hawaii Congresswoman and Japanese-American Patsy Mink.

Very few Asians have been on the national stage as politicians, and when Ms. Mink died, her New York Times obituary did not even mention that she ran for president.

Geraldine Ferraro was the first (and only) female Democratic vice-presidential nominee, and Sarah Palin was the first (and only) female Republican vice-presidential nominee. They created visibility for women in national party politics. Joseph Lieberman was the first Jewish vice presidential nominee when he ran with Al Gore in 2000. They all lost their bids but they made the way easier for others like them in the future to run for office.

Lieberman made an unsuccessful bid for president in 2004. Ferraro did not run again on a national scale, but became a national figure who served as a voice and mentor for future candidates, particularly women. It is not clear what the political future holds for Sarah Palin, however; after stepping down from the governorship she became a contributor to national television through the Fox network.

What is true for people who want to improve their speaking skills is true for politicians. The more you run for office, the better you get at doing the things that candidates need to do: speak well, stay motivated, communicate with diplomacy and adopt issues that resonate with voters. Running for president, even unsuccessfully, gives candidates experience for future bids and may put them on the radar for other appointments.

Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain gained national notoriety, wrote a book on his presidential bid, and became the host of a national radio program that bears his name. Clearly for some, a bid for the presidency means national or international recognition and even fame.

Teddy Roosevelt famously said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man (or women) who points out how the strong … stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the (wo)man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends him(her)self in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if (s)he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his (her) place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

In American politics even a losing candidate can have an impact, because he or she may be able to get across a point of view to the electorate or – on a personal level – gain a new measure of influence.

There is simply no way to measure what the impact factors are for people who run for office unsuccessfully. They may personally benefit with fame or a platform to share their passions, and they no doubt inspire others to try for what seems impossible simply because they stepped into the arena.

Read this story on The Conversation (May 11, 2015)

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