TV Networks Jockey to Host First 2020 Democratic Presidential Debates

Democratic Primary Comp - iStock - H 2019

Broadcast and cable news are "actively fighting" for the first two candidate debates, in June and July: "Everyone just gives their best pitch."

Leading Democratic presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand are not the ones jostling for position right now: the country's major broadcast and cable news networks are also facing off behind the scenes to host and televise the first two presidential primary debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, in June and July.

"Everyone's actively fighting for it," one broadcast television executive involved in the planning process tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Everyone just gives their best pitch."

On Dec. 20, the DNC formally announced plans for 12 primary debates, double what was originally announced for the 2016 party primary ultimately won by Hillary Clinton. Discussions about potential media partnerships began back in 2017 but ramped up after the 2018 midterm elections, according to a DNC official.

"For the cable networks, it is an all-hands-on-deck battle to win not only the most debates but, more important, the 'best' debates — those most likely to occur during pivotal moments in the campaign," says a veteran cable news executive. Because of the sensitivity of the pitching process, nearly all the broadcast and cable news networks declined to discuss their plans.

"The DNC has been talking to a number of media partners to make sure that the Democratic debates have the largest reach possible and focus on the issues that voters care about," says spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa in a statement.

David Bohrman, who oversaw and planned nine presidential primary debates during his career as a CNN executive, says the networks begin by pitching "the broader feel" and vision of the event, getting into logistical details once selected by the DNC.

"The networks have to convince the party and the associated candidates that they have a good idea, an interesting idea, a format that's going to be helpful to let people know who these people are and what they say. And, it's got to be fair," he says.

With a wide-open nominating contest, stakeholders must confront the logistical challenges presented by a potentially massive field of Democratic candidates. In December, the party floated the possibility of holding the first two debates "over multiple consecutive nights," which could make the events more watchable but could water down each broadcast's ratings.

The DNC is still "strongly considering" that proposal and discussing it with potential media partners, but no determination will be made until the size of the Democratic field is known, the official says.

Concerns about an unwieldy debate stage won't keep the networks on the debate sidelines, however. "These debates are important substantively for the networks to find their editorial footing and stake their claim as the place to go for insightful political coverage," the cable news executive says. "There is a lot at stake."

With President Trump unlikely to face much of a challenge in the Republican Party primary, insiders say the Democratic nominating contest will likely be the whole ballgame. Even if the president faces a challenge from a Republican like Jeff Flake or John Kasich, it's unclear if he'd even show up to debate.

Bohrman predicts that CNN and MSNBC will host at three Democratic primary debates each, with the major broadcast networks (and PBS) getting at least one each. Major platforms like Facebook and Twitter are also thought to be interested in sponsoring debates.

The DNC declined to comment when asked about conversations with particular networks, such as Fox News, which has not hosted a Democratic debate in more than a decade after attempting to do so in 2016.

CNN is off to a quick start, saying Jan. 21 that it will host a town hall event in early primary state Iowa next week with Harris, who became the latest accomplished Democrat to announce her campaign to win the White House in 2020.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.