The networks, the candidates and the Democratic Party have a lot riding on the first debates of the 2020 primary process, beginning Wednesday.
NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo are hoping that months of planning will pay off when 10 Democratic presidential candidates take the stage Wednesday in Miami, followed by 10 more Thursday night.
The networks were awarded the first debate in the Democratic presidential primary process, a highly sought-after prize considering the intense news interest in the 2020 field and the potential for massive ratings. (CNN goes next month.)
“I can tell you with 100 percent confidence that it’s going well,” Rashida Jones, senior vp specials for NBC News and MSNBC, told The Hollywood Reporter recently of the planning process. “It’s a lot. We have a lot of candidates. It’s a lot of content. There’s a lot of issues.”
No one knows exactly what the five moderators — Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow and Jose Diaz-Balart — will ask, not even the presidential campaigns.
“We were given no sense of the topics,” said Jamal Raad, communications director for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s campaign. “There are segments, but there’s no clear sense that these segments will be topic-focused.”
Jones, who said hosting the first debate is a “huge responsibility,” kept her comments broad. “My focus is how do we do this in a way that’s interesting and smart for the audience and they take away and learn something,” she said.
What we do know is which moderators will appear when. Holt and Guthrie will be busiest, appearing in both hours of each debate each night. Holt moderates the first hour with Guthrie and Diaz-Balart, and then teams with Todd and Maddow — the only opinion host of the group — in the second.
There’s some concern among the campaigns about how much speaking time each of the 10 candidates will get over the course of a two-hour debate. “It’s just going to be very hard to put together a full answer to some of the big problems facing America in a 60-second soundbite,” said Raad.
“I just want to make sure that we get a fair number of questions,” said former congressman John Delaney, who is debating Wednesday. “I have no reason to think I won’t.”
Delaney, though, understands what the networks are up against with such a massive field this early in the process. “It’s a challenge for them because they’re going to have 10 people on stage,” he said. “That’s never easy.”
The lineup for each night was determined by a random draw June 14. Wednesday’s slate, which includes Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke, is thought to be weaker than Thursday night’s, which includes top-tier candidates Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg.
The campaigns are making the best of it. “I think we have an incredible opportunity to draw to go the first night,” the Inslee campaign strategist said.
While the candidates will be on the hot seat tonight and tomorrow, there are also major ramifications for the host networks, which are hoping to dominate the news cycle for weeks to come.
“It’s expensive to do these debates right — technology, lighting, the setting, the sound,” said former CNN executive David Bohrman, who oversaw and planned nine primary debates. “It’s all very complex. It’s a big lift and it’s a lot of work.”