CNN's 2020 Strategy: Betting on Live Events With a Touch of "Game Show" Theatrics

CNN Debates - H - 2019
John Ueland

The network has been cutting away from Trump rallies while doubling down on live candidate events (25 town halls) and experimenting with a live debate lottery ahead of the Detroit Democratic showdown.

On June 18, as a chant of "CNN sucks!" broke out across a crowded arena in Orlando, CNN anchor John Berman interrupted the network's live coverage of Donald Trump's 2020 kickoff event to reveal a change in programming plans. "Within two minutes, he did talk about the economy," Berman told viewers. "But, within four minutes, it was attacks on the media." The network broke away.

For some who decried CNN's tendency to broadcast candidate Trump's 2016 campaign rallies live and unedited, the decision to cut away from President Trump's latest MAGA-fest was a welcome one. But then, exactly one month later, the network turned the lineup draw for the July 30 and 31 Democratic primary debates into a dramatic, hourlong live television event that was aggressively marketed as "The Draw."

For both CNN critics and those who believe in the news organization, it was one step forward, one step backward, and an indication that the network's 2020 coverage might look more like 2016 than CNN president Jeff Zucker has let on. (The gambit drew 1.031 million total viewers and about 223,000 viewers in the key 25-to-54 demo, a better-than-average showing for the hour that still trailed Fox News and MSNBC.)

"They're blindly repeating the mistakes of 2016," a former CNN employee tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Using a game show to pick the names of the candidates tells you everything you need to know about their approach to politics." CNN vp Rachel Smolkin, however, calls the event "an important moment for transparency."

While Zucker has said that "none of the campaigns had an issue" with The Draw, Faiz Shakir, who runs Sen. Bernie Sanders' operation, wasn't a fan. And he isn't expecting much from the network's two-night presidential campaign debate in Detroit, the second in a cycle of 12 that will help determine the party's nominee to take on Trump — and likely the last one featuring a massive slate of 20 candidates. "The Draw was literally a game show," Shakir says. "It was symbolically appropriate of how networks approach these debates. They are game shows with GameDay sets at the debate venue."

But the network can point to programming decisions that suggest its coverage of the 2020 campaigns will be substantive, despite what critics fear. In September, CNN will host a town hall focused exclusively on climate change, an issue that progressive Democrats feel has gotten short shrift so far.

Democratic presidential candidates such as former congressman John Delaney praise CNN for hosting some 25 town hall events to date, far more than rivals MSNBC and Fox News. "They've given everyone a town hall, and what more can you ask?" Delaney says. "Other networks have done town halls for just a small number of candidates, and I think that's terrible."

CNN perpetually faces charges of "both sideserism" for hiring contributors to defend the president and fight with designated liberals, though conservatives who know the network say they're disappointed that their ilk slowly has been disappearing from the airwaves. Through churn, controversies and presidential appointments, the stable of pro-Trump commentators has thinned considerably, with Steve Cortes, lobbyist David Urban and former Sen. Rick Santorum seen as the predominant warriors remaining.

"When Jeff came in, he was trying to change the network to where Republicans wouldn't immediately turn the channel," one prominent GOPer claims. "I think he accomplished that, and now he's alienated them all again. There have been several people who have told me, 'I'm not coming on CNN. There's no upside.' "

Former CBS News president Andrew Heyward says CNN is "programming for political junkies," delivering a serving of news and analysis to an audience that is "almost insatiably hungry" for it. Heyward adds, "They have a great array of experts across the spectrum. If it looks to some extent like it's a sporting event, that's how the candidates treat it too."

Zucker, Heyward says, already has answered for criticism about the network's 2016 coverage. "They will not be glomming on to a candidate and giving him or her the kind of ride that Trump got," he says. "They're aware that that was excessive. That isn't going to happen again."

While the network is still mired in third place in primetime and total viewers, it remains profitable. AT&T's Turner division — a segment that includes TNT, TBS and CNN — posted $6.98 billion in revenue in 2018 on the strength of ad sales and carriage fees. The network committed to bringing about 500 staffers (including programmers, hosts, journalists and analysts) to Michigan ahead of the network's first debate of the 2020 presidential cycle.

Smolkin, who oversees CNN's digital political coverage, says this cycle will be different from 2016. "This is our first full election cycle as the CNN Politics team," she says. "Last cycle, we were brand new and just getting started. That was a huge challenge and a steep learning curve for a brand-new team, and we were focused on — honestly — the basics of coverage. Now, we're in a vastly different place as a team."

Detroit presents a hard-fought, high-stakes chance for the entire CNN apparatus — linear and digital — to set the tone for the rest of the election cycle, observers say. "This is a real opportunity for us to introduce these candidates to our audiences and to offer smart coverage about these candidates and where they stand on these issues," Smolkin says. 

Former network executives polled by THR are bullish on CNN's ability to produce a debate that is entertaining yet informative, hopefully without any of the technical difficulties that plagued NBC in June. "A 20-candidate event is an enormous challenge, logistically and technologically," says former NBC News executive Mark Lukasiewicz, now dean of Hofstra University's school of communication. "NBC did a good job with it — technologically — and I expect CNN will do a good with it too."

Delaney, who complained about the number of questions he received in the first debate, says CNN has run an "on-the-level process" so far and is confident he will get his opportunities. He adds, "I'm sure I will walk off the debate stage and say I wanted more time and questions. That's almost a mathematical certainty."

Sanders' campaign manager, Shakir, adds bluntly, "Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that these two-hour debates as they stand are helping move a policy conversation."

This story appears in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.