In other words, like most presidential debates (these days), these weren’t really “debates” per se but something else... something resembling, say, shows like The Voice or Big Brother or Survivor or American Idol. I’m referring to the dynamic of having the show’s contestants perform in some manner and then endure some form of judgment, including the ceremonial voting off of some as the field winnows down to finalists and then a winner.
The candidate getting the most attention both during the two hours and afterwards was, not coincidentally, the host of his own reality competition show, The Apprentice (and its popular offshoot Celebrity Apprentice). Or at least he used to be, as apparently NBCUniversal cut ties with multi-billionaire Donald Trump in late June following his controversial statements about Mexicans made not long after announcing his presidential candidacy.
Trump made more, similarly outrageous remarks last night, as those who watched saw and heard, revealing along the way a mostly untutored, almost adolescent-seeming frustration with everything that at times recalls outrage of the mentally-unstable news anchor Howard Beale in 1976’s Network. The more Trump repeats his fallback mantra that the U.S. is in “serious trouble” and “we don’t win anymore,” the more it sounds like Beale’s similarly non-specific cry that he’s “mad as hell” and is “not going to take this anymore!”
Setting aside all of what was said on the stage at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland by the 17 hopefuls yesterday, the most remarkable takeaway I have is the report that 24 million watched the later one on Fox News Channel, kind of a staggering total.
It was apparently the most-watched show ever on Fox News. Reuters says that previously the most-watched primary debate drew less than half that total, with 10.7 million tuning in for a Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama one in 2008. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show finale that aired just afterwards drew 3.5 million, the second-highest ever for that show (just a little less than the viewership for an Obama appearance in late October 2008).
For further comparison, for a WSOP Main Event final table to draw 2 million viewers was considered a big audience in the past, although it has been several years since that total has been reached. An article on Sports Business Daily offers the following numbers for WSOP ME final table viewers: 2.364 million (2008), 2.199 million (2009), 1.563 million (2010), 1.223 million (2011), 735,000 (2012), and 1.234 million (2013). (The last two years were for the 15-minute delayed “virtually live” shows; previously the ratings were for the edited FTs.) Meanwhile I’m seeing various references to the 2014 WSOP Main Event final table drawing about 1.15 million viewers.
Presidential debates -- i.e., between the major parties’ candidates (not before or during the primaries) have traditionally drawn significantly more viewers. More than 60 million watched those Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960 I was referencing yesterday, as was the case for the Obama-Romney debates in 2012. The biggest debate audiences ever, apparently, came in 1980 when around 80 million watched the only debate between Carter and Reagan in late October.
Obviously Trump’s chaotic role in the debate lead-up helped create conditions for the huge viewership. We’ve all seen tournaments where a novice player manages to accumulate a huge stack and the chip lead early without demonstrating much skill at all beyond repeatedly making a similar, aggressive move and managing to survive over and again. We’ll see how far Trump similarly gets along.
The longer he survives, though, the more evident it will become that his mantra regarding America being in trouble is in fact true -- although perhaps not in the way he intends it.