CNN and ABC Snag the Presidential Debates

All of a sudden on Wednesday morning, the TV booking of the year was up for grabs.

Since 1987, presidential debates have been simulcast on every major channel in the country. But President Biden’s shock announcement that he would skip this fall’s preplanned matchups in favor of debates sponsored by individual news outlets sent network executives into a scramble.

Such debates typically take months to plan. Instead, in three hours, CNN and ABC News outmaneuvered their rivals to land a pair of prime-time face-offs between Mr. Biden and former President Donald J. Trump that promise enormous ratings and prestige.

Given the circumstances, some improvisation was involved.

CNN’s chairman, Mark Thompson, was backstage at Madison Square Garden, about to deliver a crucial presentation to network advertisers. He began rewriting his remarks after aides confirmed over the phone that both candidates had agreed to a CNN debate on June 27. Mr. Thompson took out his reading glasses to deliver the announcement onstage, reading from a script scrawled across a creased notecard.

Debra OConnell, the head of ABC News, was deep into an annual meeting with regional affiliates when word came in. Because her network also airs major sports and entertainment events, her team had to coordinate with executives at Disney, ABC’s parent company, to find a free night on the schedule. Soon after, ABC announced a Sept. 10 debate.

The anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate the CNN debate, which is set to air at 9 p.m. Eastern. ABC said its anchors David Muir and Linsey Davis would moderate its debate in September. ABC will share that debate with other broadcast and streaming news networks to simulcast; CNN has said only that its debate will air on its own platforms.

Mr. Trump said on Wednesday that he would also appear on Fox News for a debate in October, but the Biden campaign quickly made it clear that its candidate would not participate.

Competitors at NBC and CBS were left wondering what might have been. Some journalists at those networks privately expressed frustration on Wednesday that their bosses had not secured the coveted events.

Representatives for CNN and ABC declined to elaborate on their exact conversations with the candidates. Several journalists at the networks said that executives had appeared as surprised as anyone by Mr. Biden’s announcement, and that the day had unfolded at lightning speed.

Some networks may have been better prepared than others.

The prospect that individual news organizations might end up serving as debate sponsors had already been the subject of widespread speculation within the highly competitive TV news industry. Some executives had started thinking through contingency plans.

Mr. Biden had repeatedly declined to pledge his participation in the fall matchups arranged by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan group that has sponsored general-election debates since 1987. One of Mr. Biden’s closest advisers, Anita Dunn, is a longtime critic of the commission. And while Mr. Trump had promised to meet Mr. Biden “anywhere, any place,” he has also complained about the commission.

The Biden-Trump debates were welcome news to journalists at CNN and ABC, networks that have had bumpy runs of late.

ABC News’s previous president, Kim Godwin, stepped down this month after a tumultuous tenure marked by morale problems and softening ratings at the network’s flagship morning show. CNN, which emphasizes straightforward news reporting, has struggled to compete against more partisan competitors in an age of polarization. (Mr. Thompson, its chairman, was previously the president and chief executive of The New York Times Company.)

Jeff Zucker, a former president of CNN, praised the cable news network on Wednesday for securing the first debate of the general election, which is typically the highest rated. “I am incredibly proud of them to pull this off, and I think it will be a really momentous night for the country,” he said at a conference in London.

Mr. Zucker also offered a prediction. “This will be,” he said, “the most-watched event, day, night, in the history of CNN.”

John Koblin contributed reporting.

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Preetha Nair


With over three decades of industry experience, Ms. Nair is a seasoned consultant specialized in ushering start-up companies into new markets. Currently serving as the Chairperson for World Trade Xpert, she leverages her expertise to build global channel partnerships, develop robust sales pipelines, and engage in advocacy with host governments on policy issues. Throughout her career, she has played a pivotal role in helping companies close business deals worth over 8 billion USD, demonstrating her ability to drive substantial revenue growth and market expansion on a global scale.