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As the 2016 presidential primary debates roll on with record ratings, the forums provide an enormous platform for the networks to showcase the chops of their anchors.
John Dickerson, currently in his first season on Face the Nation, moderates his first debate Saturday, Nov. 14 among Democratic aspirants Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. And he admits the outsize attention from viewers this time around does confer added pressure. “It’s a big deal. And it’s a big deal now because a lot of people will be watching,” Dickerson told The Hollywood Reporter.
If the Democrats have not generated the same caliber of TV sparks as the unruly Republican field, they still managed to draw a record 15.3 million viewers to CNN on Oct. 13 for their only debate so far. And complaints from the GOP field about the tone and allegations of so-called “gotcha” questions in the debates so far mean that any moderator is under the microscope.
“Hopefully if I do it right, [viewers] will go right through me and get to the candidates and whatever issues are illuminated,” explained Dickerson. “You have to find a balance in illuminating the choices that are important between these candidates and inciting bickering.”
The debate will take place at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa and air live at 9 p.m. ET. CBS’ Des Moines affiliate KCCI and the Des Moines Register are partners on the debate. CBS News Congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes, KCCI anchor Kevin Cooney and the Des Moines Register’s political columnist Kathie Obradovich will join Dickerson at the moderators’ table. Dickerson, low key and studious, also will be the lead moderator for the CBS News Republican debate in February. CBS Evening News executive Steve Capus, who will produce the Iowa debate, noted that the mission is to be “provocative, insightful and thoughtful.”
“We want to be fair,” said Capus. “I think it’s an absolutely critical part of the process. We come at it with a very healthy respect for the people who are running and we want to try to draw them out on specifics. Our role is not to create a televised food fight. If there are going to be disagreements, they’ll present themselves.”
He notes that in terms of preparation, the debate will be a “super-sized version of what we do on Sunday.” Dickerson already has had many of the candidates on his Sunday show. And Nov. 8 appearances from Donald Trump and Ben Carson, on something of a media tour in the wake of questions about his personal biography, probably helped to propel Face the Nation to its best tune in among the 25-54 demographic since May, with 3.5 million viewers overall. FTN is the most-watched Sunday show this season averaging 3.47 million viewers.
That said it’s unlikely that the CBS debate — on a Saturday night after all — will crack 20 million viewers, like Republican debates on Fox News and CNN have.
“I’m not sure what kind of audience we’re going to get,” admits CBS News president David Rhodes. “But there is a real debate in the Democratic party right now. People aren’t paying much attention to that because there’s more heat and light around the Republican process. But people also aren’t paying attention to [the Democrats] because arguably there’s an organized campaign on the part of the frontrunner [Clinton] to represent the race as already over. “I don’t think you can take at face value the suggestion that ‘oh, yeah nobody’s really interested, nothing to see, nothing’s really going on.’ That’s a political narrative being promoted by people who would like the process to be over. I think the people who have wanted to see a robust debate in the Democratic primaries have a point. And I think they’re going to get that from us.”
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