prof. e.

Mass Communication, [multi]media, methodology and much, much more!

Prognostications about Political Programming

Posted by prof e on November 2, 2015

The first Tuesday in November is typically election day…the day that ordinary citizens voice their preferences for candidates and ballot issues. This year is an off-year election, meaning that candidates on the ballot will be those running for school board, city council, mayor, etc.–not governor of the state or president of the United States. The national election for the office of president will come next year.

But 2016 will be here before you know it, and the major political parties are well under way with their process of determining who will be their candidate for the general election. While the Democratic party appears to have settled on Hillary Clinton as their candidate, the Republican party is still struggling to find the best candidate to go toe-to-toe with Hillary.

The surprising strength of billionaire Donald Trump’s candidacy is having an equally surprising effect on TV ratings. The three Republican debates thus far have generated much higher ratings that similar events in the past. Trump, the media celebrity, has leveraged his “star”-power and bombastic personality to attract viewers to TV programming that might otherwise be about as exciting as watching C-SPAN.

Which brings us to a very strange phenomenon. The appeal of huge ratings has the TV networks fighting over these political debates as if they were NFL games. Winning the contract to televise a presidential candidate forum has become a permit to print money…and the candidates know it. That is why representatives from each of the major candidate’s campaigns recently met to agree to new rules that will allow them to dictate to the networks how to structure future debates. The candidates are in the driver’s seat and they are going to decide where they want to go.

And one place they want to go, collectively, is away from networks and moderators who are less than friendly. The most recent Republican candidate debate, hosted by CNBC, a subsidiary of NBC, was widely criticized by political observers, and the candidates themselves. According to RNC chairman Reince Priebus,

While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of ‘gotcha’ questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates.

CNBC’s approach will work if the candidates are at the mercy of the TV networks to get their message out. But in this day and age with social media and websites and competing news outlets, the control is slipping away from TV networks. If they want to keep the debates, and the associated advertising dollars, they will have to make concessions to the news-makers.

In all of this journalists and TV news networks need to remember that credibility is their primary product. If and when they lose credibility they will have little to offer. And according to a recent Gallup poll journalists’ credibility is below business executives, on par with lawyers, and just a few notches above advertisers, politicians, and lobbyists.

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