Presidential races

Will Trump be ratings gold for Fox News?

Donald Trump, Fox News, Debate
Fox News

Donald Trump’s celebrity — and intrigue as to how the other Republican candidates will deal with his presence — could deliver a ratings boost for the first GOP debate, set for Fox News on Aug. 6.

The audience will not be as big as the first season finale of Trump’s NBC series “The Apprentice,” when 28 million viewers tuned in, but the interest around him, together with the rebukes he has drawn from other Republican contenders, could at least spike viewership beyond what would otherwise be expected.

{mosads}“Mr. Trump has shown himself to be a huge presence in the media already,” said Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor and the author of Presidential Debates: 50 years of High-Risk TV. “I think a lot of people are going to be interested in seeing his interactions on the stage with the other candidates.”

In 2012, the Republican primary debates drew audiences ranging from a low of 3.2 million (an early CNN clash) to a high of 7.6 million (for an ABC encounter in the month preceding the Iowa caucuses).

But if even a fraction of the wider public who knows Trump through “The Apprentice” turn on the debate, it could make a substantial difference to the viewership bottom-line.

Even so, Trump will be one of 10 candidates on the stage. Some experts caution that viewers who tune in expecting fireworks might not hang around for long if none materialize immediately.

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, was reluctant to predict more than “decent ratings” for the first debate.

“Remember, Donald Trump is one of a cast of 10 characters here,” he said. “So it’s like, ‘Am I going to watch nine other guys plod through esoterica or talking points before I get to The Donald rolling a grenade across the stage?’ ”

Berkovitz also ticked off a number of other reasons why expectations for the debate shouldn’t get out of hand. He noted that the presidential debates occurring just before the general election get huge viewing figures, in part because voters can be drawn in by a sense of civic duty. That sense of obligation does not typically exist in primary debates.

More prosaically, the debate is taking place at a time when most of the population is not focused on election season.

The ratings from the last cycle provide some evidence to back this up. The two lowest-rated primary debates took place in May and June of 2011, more than a year before the election. By contrast, every one of the top four occurred in either December of 2011 or January 2012.

The 2012 cycle featured one debate that bears close comparison to the Aug. 6 event. On Aug. 11, 2011, a Fox-hosted Republican primary debate drew 5.1 million viewers, which was only good enough for 11th place in audience terms for that cycle, out of 19 debates for which ratings are available. But that provides a useful yardstick by which to measure the commercial performance of the Trump-centered clash.

“On the one hand, it is very early; on the other, [Trump] has a very big audience,” said Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of The Candidate, a book about presidential campaigning. “Put it this way: I think this audience will be more than for any other August debate.”

There is evidence in general election debates that a sense of celebrity can spark public fascination, even among a given political figure’s enemies. In 2008, even when President Obama’s star was at its highest and the famous “Hope” poster bearing his face could be seen everywhere, he took a beating in the TV ratings — from Sarah Palin.

The vice-presidential clash between then Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Palin drew 69.9 million viewers. By contrast, the biggest audience that Obama and his opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), could pull in was 63.2 million, for the second of their three debates.

The viewership for the third Obama-McCain debate also dropped by almost 7 million from the 63 million figure — a decline that some observers blamed on the fact that the deciding game in baseball’s National League Championship Series was played the same night.

It won’t be Trump’s celebrity alone that will be the major draw for viewers on Aug. 6. The question of how other candidates deal with him on the debate stage is also being keenly anticipated.

“There is an incentive to grab the spotlight, but that is tempered by the need to appear presidential,” said Schroeder. “I would put Trump in a category of his own, because he is playing by his own rules. The other politicians do need to do something to grab attention, but they need to do it in some way that passes the ‘smell’ test.”

Popkin put it more pithily:

“It’ll be a zoo,” he said.

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden John McCain

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