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The GOP presidential debates are proving to be a bonanza for cable news. With the third face-off set for Wednesday night, CNBC has sold out its entire inventory of ads, commanding $250,000 — and in some cases north of that — for each 30-second spot, according to media buyers and sources at NBCUniversal. That’s a huge premium over the $50,000 the business news network customarily charges for ads. It’s also 25 percent higher than what CNN got during its Republican debate in September (when Donald Trump challenged CNN chief Jeff Zucker to donate the network’s ad revenue to veterans charities).
The CNBC debate, entitled “Your Money, Your Vote,” will originate from the University of Colorado Boulder. Moderated by CNBC anchors Carl Quintanilla, Becky Quick and John Harwood, it will focus on the economy, specifically job growth, taxes, technology and retirement.
It’s a niche topic, for sure, lacking social issues like abortion and immigration that are red meat for the conservative base. CNBC also will be facing competition from the second game of the World Series on Fox. Still, the network is likely to set a new tune-in record. Its most watched night came in February 2002 during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, when 3.9 million viewers watched the network at 7 p.m. CNBC’s highest-rated debate was in November 2011 for a GOP face-off that pulled in 3.1 million viewers.
Fox News holds the record for debate ratings with 24 million viewers for the first GOP face-off last August, while CNN’s three-hour Republican debate Sept. 16 was watched by just over 23 million people. Even the Democrats pulled in 15.3 million viewers on CNN on Oct. 13.
The subtext of the CNBC debate will be Ben Carson’s surge ahead of Trump in a national poll — the first to show Trump not in the lead since he entered the race. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll released Oct. 27, Carson is now leading among Republican voters with 26 percent compared to Trump’s 22 percent. The new poll comes on the heels of several Iowa polls showing Carson edging out Trump, who has been at the head of the pack since July. Anyone who has followed the campaign knows that Trump has delighted in citing his lead in the polls, and Wednesday’s debate could generate even more fireworks with Trump on the offensive.
The topic of the debate could also favor Trump, a real estate mogul and the original host of NBC’s The Apprentice, who has made much of his business qualifications. And with Carson in the lead, the other candidates are likely to aim considerable ammunition at the former neurosurgeon, whose mild manner stands in stark contrast to Trump’s bombast.
“Trump’s economic acumen is obviously indisputable,” Quintanilla tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I think most people agree he’s built something very powerful. But the economy is a big, big thing. I think it’s dangerous to paint Trump or any of the candidates with too broad a brush because the global economy is a wide, vast landscape and it would be [difficult] for anyone to claim dominance on all of the issues we’re going to throw at them.”
Quintanilla and his colleagues have been studying 3-inch-thick binders, boning up on the stated policy positions of all of the candidates so that they can successfully challenge them.
“You’re trying to, in a way, anticipate what their initial answer may be. That’s where a lot of the prep comes in,” adds Quintanilla. “The debate is centered on business and the economy. That’s an area where it’s more difficult to dance your way around, especially when you’re dealing with three anchors who do this all day every day. We like to think it’s our wheelhouse, and you’re certainly not going to be able to fool us because we talk about his stuff as much as [the candidates] do, if not more.”
Of course, the CNBC debate has already weathered a little controversy with Trump and Carson threatening to boycott over the network’s initial plan not to have the candidates make opening statements. Trump also wanted the debate limited to two hours — after enduring a three-hour marathon face-off on CNN last month. After he accused CNBC of attempting to drag the debate out so that the network could sell more commercials, CNBC acquiesced to Trump and Carson’s demands.
Quintanilla, who was among the reporters embedded with the John Kerry-John Edwards campaign in 2004, says he had no part in the internal discussions about the debate format. “Anybody who has watched nominating contests knows that this is pretty standard in terms of the back-and-forth regarding the structure of the debate,” he says.
The other candidates on the main stage with Trump and Carson will be Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Rand Paul. Quintanilla has interviewed Trump many times and says he’s ready for whatever Trump and the other candidates may dish out.
“I’m not really surprised by much anymore. I want to bring humanity to the debate. I want it to be real. I want it to be substantive. But I want the candidates to be the people they are,” he says. “Whether that’s Trump or anyone else poking at us or us poking back at them, let’s have an exchange. I think that’s what viewers at this point expect. And I think they can see through any lack of spontaneity on their part or ours.”
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