CNN Is Making a Debate Lineup Draw a Primetime Event: Will Anyone Watch?

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"It may be gimmicky and it may be a ratings play, but viewers and voters are fascinated by the process," a former CNN bureau chief said of Thursday's 'The Draw.'

Viewer interest in the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates is massive — a combined audience of more than 33 million viewers tuned into last month's kickoff debates on the NBC networks.

With campaign mania in full swing, CNN is trying an experiment on Thursday night, making the normally behind-the-scenes process of selecting the candidate lineup into a live event worthy of regular promotion. Described in onscreen graphics as "The Draw," the event will take place during the 8 p.m. hour hosted by Anderson Cooper.

CNN did not explain the decision to host the draw live and has not made executives available to discuss the choice, though industry observers and network veterans say it's self-explanatory and makes obvious sense.

"It may be gimmicky and it may be a ratings play, but viewers and voters are fascinated by the process," said former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno. "There is no reason not to do this live and promote the debates and bring viewers into the process to see the positioning that goes into them."

CNN's programming decision stands in stark contrast to the way NBC selected the two-night lineup, at a secretive event held at 30 Rockefeller Center that was attended by representatives of the campaigns. The results trickled out on Twitter from political reporters on the scene.

While NBC picked candidates randomly from two buckets (high-polling and low-polling) to ensure that the two-night event would not be lopsided, the second night ended up being more star-studded than the first. CNN is likely hoping for a more balanced slate on July 30 and 31 in Detroit.

"I was actually surprised MSNBC didn't do the live draw on TV," said Brian Fallon, a former CNN contributor who ran press for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. "Enough people were glued to Twitter that day to learn who'd be sharing the stage that they might as well broadcast it live. It certainly beats another pundit panel."

To truly be a success, the hour of the live draw would likely have to exceed the 892,000 total viewers (214,000 in the demo) Cooper drew in the second quarter of this year.

"I don't know if there will be a lot of turn-up outside of the campaigns and a few journalists," says a network executive who thinks "The Draw" is a good idea, if a bit over-promoted by CNN. "I'm not sure I would flog it to death," he added. "I think that might be a little excessive. But, I think airing it is good because right now, with two nights of debates, it's actually significant whose going to be on with whom and which debate. There's some news there."

While those network insiders polled by The Hollywood Reporter were generally in favor of CNN's decision to hold the draw live, there's some apprehension about the potential format. "I hope the tone is distinguished and not a circus," said Sesno, now a program director at George Washington University.

Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC News executive who produced 10 presidential debates and forums, said the "The Draw" is "just the latest step down the road of gameifying the primary debates." 

But, he said, "I have to share the blame, as a former debate producer, and I completely understand the instinct to build excitement and anticipation to grow viewership. It's why what used to be a one-night, two-hour broadcast has become a multi-day affair with pre-game and post-game programming built on location around the debate itself."

Lukasiewicz, now dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, said he supports innovation in debate programming. But, he added, "I think viewers and voters and the process itself would be better served by dialing back on show biz and dialing up the content."