Last week, MSNBC suspended David Shuster for saying, “Doesn’t it seem as if Chelsea [Clinton] is sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?” A search through MSNBC’s archives quickly uncovered a glaring double standard: Last September, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann accused President Bush of “pimping General David Petraeus.” It’s the same analogy — these days, the word “pimping” is slang, meaning to use in an unseemly way. Olbermann wasn’t reprimanded, but Shuster was suspended for two weeks and forced to apologize. Why?
The most logical answer is that Shuster’s words jeopardized a lucrative opportunity for his bosses. The day after Shuster made his comments, Hillary press strategist Howard Wolfson told reporters on a conference call, “I, at this point, can’t envision a scenario where we would continue to engage in debates on that network [MSNBC] given that comment.” The threat was obvious: If MSNBC did not take action to appease the Clinton campaign, then Hillary would pull out of an MSNBC presidential debate scheduled for Feb. 26 in Ohio.
Tuesday, Clinton told a Cleveland TV reporter that she hadn’t yet accepted the invitation to the debate, even though — according to a letter ex-campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle sent to the Obama campaign — she agreed to it last week. When asked last night, an MSNBC spokesman told National Review Online that the network had not received any official word from the Clinton campaign on whether she would be withdrawing from the debate. “We are hopeful the debate will move forward as planned,” the spokesman said.
It should come as no surprise that MSNBC feels this way. Networks — particularly cable-news networks — love to host presidential debates, which is one reason why we’ve seen so many of them this primary season. After her disappointing Super Tuesday finish, Clinton pressed Obama to participate in five debates leading up to the March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio. Obama agreed to only two of them: a CNN/Univision debate in Texas, and the MSNBC debate in Ohio that Clinton threatened to abandon. But if Obama had consented, the Clinton campaign had networks lined up to host all five. Presidential debates shower profitable opportunities on the networks that host them, which is why they’re happy to do it.
Stephen A. Greyser, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, is an expert on the structure of advertising on special-programming events like the Super Bowl. He explains that there are two ways cable-news networks like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News derive unique benefits from hosting presidential debates.
Advertising: On its best days, the highest-rated cable news show (Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor) gets around two million total viewers. That’s not bad. But at least 17 of the 22 cable-news debates on TVNewser’s latest debate ranker scored at least that many viewers. The highest-rated of the bunch — CNN’s blockbuster debate between Clinton and Obama in Hollywood the week before Super Tuesday — scored a whopping 8.3 million total viewers.
“Larry King does attract an audience,” Professor Greyser says, “but if you were to look at the numbers, you would see that cable networks would be happy to have special programming events that are likely to draw [these much bigger audiences]” More importantly, Greyser explains, hosting the debates enables cable networks to sell advertisers a target demographic — educated viewers who take politics more seriously than most. A look at the sponsors for the last three cable-news debates — financial products, Internet companies, and a group advocating “clean coal,” to name a few — supports this idea.
There’s another reason debates appeal to advertisers, Greyser says. They benefit from “what might be called a semi- or quasi-public service in bringing these debates to the audience. If the advertiser was performing some sort of public service by sponsoring a debate,” he says, “there may be some residual public-service benefits that redound to the advertiser. But mostly it’s about finding a target audience.”
Self-Promotion: The presidential debates are also great opportunities for cable news networks to promote themselves, Greyser explains. “It provides a meaningful opportunity for promotional spots for programming on that cable channel. By analogy, one of the more frequently advertised elements during the Super Bowl was other programming on Fox.”
The goal of reaching a target audience applies here, too. If you’re CNN, hosting one of these debates, Greyser says, “you have a relatively serious audience, and here you get an opportunity to parade the highlights of your coverage, your personalities and your schedule in front of them. That’s a plus from the standpoint of those networks.” Also, sticking with the CNN example, “you have an opportunity to promote Wolf Blitzer as someone who belongs on the same stage as future presidents.”
Finally, the cable-news networks promote their brand every time a clip from a debate is featured on another news broadcast or uploaded onto YouTube. “Whenever an excerpt from one of these runs on other stations,” Greyser says, “there has to be a little logo up in the corner that says CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc. There’s an opportunity for a little brand exposure outside your own network.”
Clearly, presidential debates are valuable opportunities for cable-news networks. Viewed in this light, the Clinton campaign’s threat to withdraw from a scheduled MSNBC debate in the wake of Shuster’s comments helps explain why Olbermann’s “pimping” analogy went unpunished while Shuster’s earned him a suspension: The debates are so lucrative to the cable-news networks, even star reporters aren’t safe.
– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.