Michael Wolff: GOP Candidates Are Hollywood's Unlikely New Divas

NBC No Way Illustration - H 2015
Illustration by Athena Torri

Politics has become a billion-dollar business for the TV industry, which gives Republicans huge leverage in the battle over debates as CNBC's "gotcha" questions generate both ratings and rancor.

At some point, politics crossed over from being a civic obligation of television news to television news' central business. The dutiful and high-minded became incredibly profitable, complicating the responsibilities and attitudes of journalists (and their managers), most recently in NBC's exclusion from the Republican debate cycle over complaints about CNBC's "gotcha"-style questioning.

News was once the loss leader of TV, and politics was the loss leader of news, the slog you waded through before crime, disaster, human interest, weather and sports. Two things changed that status.

Political gridlock and target-marketing techniques turned swing states into crucial battlegrounds, which meant vast advertising expenditures in local markets (and unlimited resources to spend, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court). Every midterm election and presidential cycle ups that ante. More than $3 billion was spent on local political ads in 2012 — out of a total local television advertising take of $17 billion. By some estimates, that could rise to as much as $5 billion in 2016, making politics the single biggest local television advertising category.

And then there was Fox News, handily beating all other cable news programming by aligning its product to a particular political market and sensibility.

Now, in the 2016 presidential campaign, a reality TV sense of showmanship and fascination, thanks to Donald Trump, has turned political debates into must-see, sports-like events with record-shatter­ing ratings. In fact, the Fox News lock on political programming and profits has been broken by this campaign, with audiences and money spilling over to everybody else. What's more, this fraught and uncertain race — candidates up today and down tomorrow — potentially means even more advertising money will hit local market stations. (Curiously, there is some question as to whether all the free publicity might cut into that spending.)

CNBC might reasonably be forgiven for thinking its job in hosting the Oct. 28 GOP debate was to dial up rather than dial down the level of conflict: Large debate audiences are driven by the win-lose, holy-moly, gotcha nature of the contest. Continued ratings success, including for tonight's Fox Business Channel debate, will be based not on the quality of discourse but on the starkness and drama of the polling reversals.

While news organizations see themselves as information seekers and reasonable moderators, their additional, and financially advantageous, role is to be disruptors. That media-led upheaval arguably has helped (or given hope to) every candidate save for Jeb Bush. But it also is a con­venient bete noire by which nearly every candidate can gain an additional edge. It's the double advantage of disruption: to benefit from it, and benefit from criticizing it — causing a further disruption.

The criticism of CNBC, and the exclusion of NBC as a debate venue (although not as a Trump forum — even after cutting ties with his The Apprentice and his beauty pageants, NBC let him host Saturday Night Live, earning the show's best ratings since early 2012), becomes, in reality TV fashion, the secondary offscreen contretemps that fuels the narrative.

The Republican National Committee, as agent of the debates — seeking less theatricality and less uncertainty for the party — is challenged by the individual campaigns, representing the stars of the debates, who are seeking to achieve strategic theatricality for themselves in negotiations with the networks, the producers of the debates (the Trump organization, at least, being well-schooled in TV negotiations). The networks, of course, want maximum theatricality.

The various producers themselves are in bitter competition as well, each eager to outdo and undermine the others in ratings and headlines, with CNN most recently joyous in its attacks on CNBC and NBC News — the head of CNN, Jeff Zucker, having been ousted as the head of NBC. (CNBC itself, which is outside the NBC News Group, was trying to use the debate as a branding moment.)

NBC News, awkwardly triangulated, must of course insist on its independence as a journalistic organization and its right to cover a story with appropriate gotcha aggressiveness. At the same time, it understands the business reality: It's in a negotiation with highly rated talent that has the clout to dictate terms or go someplace else. (It remains unclear who is doing the negotiating, individual candidates or the RNC, whose chairman, Reince Priebus, went on NBC's Today show to discuss the dispute, once referring to the host network as ABC.) But in some further jiujitsu, it is actually journalistic fierceness and bravado that produces those ratings. (Even Fox News, partial to the Republicans, has gone gotcha.)

NBC, for its part, believes that February, when its next debate is scheduled, is several lifetimes from now in this race. With the field winnowed by then, a debate hosted by Lester Holt and someone from fellow NBC Universal network Telemundo, which also will broadcast the show, will be all the more important, giving the Republicans one of their few bridges to the Hispanic audience. "I want it," NBC News chairman Andy Lack tells me in an interview.

It is almost impossible not to see everybody as a pawn in a larger game — or in someone else's game. For TV news, this campaign is an unimaginable gift, one that, if conflict is maintained, will keep giving. For GOP candidates, the more volatile the season, the more everyone, save for the person at the top, benefits. For politicians, a no-argument issue that resonates with everybody, and that also produces more media attention, is to blame the media for, well, anything and everything.

And, indubitably, the media challenge is to try to bring down whoever is rising up, with profits and ratings directly related to the drama of someone's fall, another's rise or the survival of someone else. The modern history of politics is all about the way it has been transformed by, and become dependent on, media. But this campaign may be the first about co-dependence, each holding the other up, while bringing the other down.

Michael Wolff, a THR contributing editor, writes frequently about the media. His most recent book is Television is the New Television.