Football is, of course, the king of TV ratings. But the NFL will get a serious rival for ratings immortality when Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton goes down Sept. 26. The 90-minute debate will air on all of the broadcast and cable news networks (plus live streaming), and its only real competition is Monday Night Football on ESPN. The New York Times predicts it will be the most widely watched presidential debate since Carter and Reagan faced off way back in 1980. Several news outlets, including NPR and The Hill, say the Hofstra hoedown could crack 100 million viewers.
Super Bowl 50, by comparison, drew nearly 112 million viewers—airing only on CBS, of course. Even so, “multiple sources are saying it could be Super Bowl-type numbers,” says Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group senior VP/director of content strategy. “It is certainly a possibility.”
The subplots are plenty—and plenty juicy—for the first-ever presidential debate between a man and a woman. Can Donald show that he’s presidential? Can Hillary show that she’s likeable? And how will Lester Holt do, especially after his NBC News mate, Matt Lauer, was pilloried for his moderator performance earlier this month?
It’s the first time moderating a presidential debate for Holt, anchor of NBC Nightly News. Same goes for the other presidential debate moderators: Martha Raddatz of ABC News and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who host a town hall debate in St. Louis Oct. 9, and Chris Wallace of Fox News for Las Vegas on Oct. 19.
Trump has questioned the legitimacy of Holt moderating, stating that the respected newsman is a Democrat, and describing presidential debates to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly as “a phony system.” Holt is a registered Republican.
True to their characters, Clinton has been hunkered down with prep materials for days, while Trump appeared to be relying on a spontaneous performance. Clinton has been working on subtly goading Trump into “gotcha” moments. “In practice sessions, she has come across best when she waits to pounce confidently on Mr. Trump for lying or misstating facts, rather than trying to talk over him,” the Times reported.
Trump was a star on the primary debate stage but will have to take a different tack for a presidential debate, convincing viewers—and voters—he can stay on message and not lose his cool while under fire. “Word is that Mr. Trump isn’t doing a whole lot of debate prep,” The Wall Street Journal asserted.
The polls show the candidates tantalizingly close. In a McClatchy/Marist poll released Sept. 23, Clinton led Trump by six percentage points, while a Rasmussen Reports poll released the day before had Trump up by five.
One notable figure in the debate scrum is Roger Ailes, disgraced ex-Fox News chairman/CEO and current Trump advisor whose GOP tutelage dates back to the Nixon era. Surprisingly, Ailes was absent from two recent Trump debate prep sessions, but he has reportedly been sending memos and speaking to the candidate.
Carroll says the first debate between two candidates tends to rate the highest. “It’s available everywhere and there’s substantial interest, and Trump is able to generate even more interest,” he adds. “Put it all together and it’s certainly likely to be the mostwatched debate in recent history.”