If you turned on CNN Monday night, you would be forgiven if you thought you were watching the political version of a 1950s television spectacular.
Night of a thousand Democrats! A song and dance routine from Kamala Harris defending her anti-truancy policies as California attorney general! A dramatic reading from Bernie Sanders about why the Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote!
Thrills! Chills! Trump-bashing! Taxes! Lots and lots of taxes! Dear God, the taxes!
No less than five candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination — which makes up at least one-tenth of the current field by my hyperbolic calculation — appeared on the five-hour very special episode of CNN’s town halls, direct from Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.
From 7 p.m. to midnight, the five hopefuls involved (Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana) appeared on stage seriatim in what the network billed as “the first major event of the 2020 presidential campaign.” (I mean, except for all of those other town halls it hosted.)
Well, if this is major, I would hate to look at what a minor night for CNN looks like.
According to The Daily Caller, both Fox and MSNBC beat CNN’s town halls in average viewership in prime time, and both by fairly wide margins.
“The average viewership for each of their town halls was 1,201,000 with 371,000 in the 25-54 key age demographic, according to early Nielsen Media Research. MSNBC’s nightly programming of Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell and Brian Williams had over half a million more, with 1,810,000 viewers, but CNN beat them in the key demo,” The Daily Caller reported.
However, “Fox News’ coverage of Martha MacCallum, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Shannon Bream finished the night with over a million more viewers than the town halls, averaging 2,262,000 viewers with 380,000 in the demo.”
The winner in the loser’s sweepstakes was Harris, whose town hall garnered over 1.44 million viewers. Sanders was in second place, garnering 1.34 million viewers, a figure virtually identical to his first town hall on the network.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg and Warren both had 1.18 million viewers and Klobuchar was last by a mile with 869,000 viewers.
It’s worth noting that each of these candidates had already appeared in one of CNN’s ponderous town hall meetings.
While these pseudo-events are indeed meetings held in “towns” and taking place in “halls,” the appellation takes significant liberties with the concept of a “town hall meeting.”
Instead of low-level participatory democracy, what viewers actually get is a slickly produced event where preselected members of the audience read questions to candidates who — having no doubt heard the queries before, if not on the campaign trail then during preparation for these profoundly stilted events — utter some permutation of “I’m glad you asked that…” and launch into an answer that may or may not have something to do with the original question.
If this sounds like your bag, hey, go for it. CNN certainly has, and in a big way. I mentioned that all of these candidates had done town hall meetings before. They’re hardly the only ones.
In fact, they were one reason why the week of April 8-12 was the network’s worst week of the year, ratings-wise. Three town halls with three candidates struggling to get traction — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro of Texas and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington — sank the network’s Nielsens like whoa.
In the interest of fairness, I suppose, CNN has to invite all the contenders to appear. The problem is that not a whole lot of people are interested in candidates like Inslee and Klobuchar, who may eventually get their turn as Democrat flavors-of-the week but have certainly evinced no tendency toward that end.
That means an anchor on the ratings of a network where the numbers already weren’t looking that healthy.
These events aren’t as easy to put together as just airing another episode of Don Lemon’s show, either, particularly when you’re doing five town halls back-to-back.
“The logistics of these things are quite complex,” Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, told WBUR-FM. “So you think about all the people from CNN and [the Harvard University Institute of Politics, an event sponsor], all the students. That means food and water for all these people; you have to keep them all well fed. You have to have green rooms.”
Yet, in the end, the effect on ratings seems to mostly be the same — and Fox News absolutely floored CNN with a night of regular programming.
But where’s the fun and anticipation in that?
Would it allow the network to run one of those chyrons along the bottom of the screen loudly announcing one of these things as if it were actual news?
Would it feature prescreened voters timorously reading questions off of a sheet of paper?
Would it produce stumbles like Bernie’s declaration that terrorists and mass-murderers in prison ought to be able to vote?
Even “terrible people” have the right to vote
Sen. Sanders explains why he believes people who have committed terrible crimes, for example the Boston Marathon bomber should have the right to vote, even while serving a sentence. https://t.co/nQqOKMZMPO #SandersTownHall pic.twitter.com/yncwmy0xDw
— Cuomo Prime Time (@CuomoPrimeTime) April 23, 2019
Of course not. Shame nobody’s actually watching — even when it’s The Night of a Thousand Democrats™.
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