Republican debates are big reality TV ratings winners

Four candidates are left on the island out of the original tribe, and will remain until the voters say, “You’re fired!” Photo: CBS

SAN DIEGO, January 27, 2012After nineteen episodes… err, debates… the reality TV show that is the Republican presidential primary debates series will take a break now following Thursday night’s debate from Jacksonville, Florida on CNN until the next CNN sponsored debate on February 22 from Mesa, Arizona. Three more are scheduled to follow in March in Georgia, California, and Oregon.

Four candidates are left on the island out of the original tribe, and will remain until the voters say, “You’re fired!” Meanwhile, viewers may wonder whether they’ve bought a storage unit that looked good from the outside until all the boxes were opened only to reveal nothing but trash inside.

Who will the voters pick as their next American Idol? Whoops, it’s easy to get confused between politics and entertainment. Courtesy Fox.

Sure, we’re having a little fun here, but these debates have turned out to be very successful for the television networks airing them for many of the same reasons your favorite shows like “The Amazing Race,” “Celebrity Apprentice,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “Real Housewives,” “Storage Wars,” “Survivor” and all those singing competitions are so loved by the networks.

Thursday night CNN notched its best debate ratings to date. Overnight Nielsen ratings show that 5.4 million viewers tuned in to view the debate from Jacksonville, which is nearly eight times CNN’s average audience. Of those viewers, 1.7 million were in the desirable 25-54 year old age range, which is the group advertisers most want to reach and will pay a premium to get their commercials in front of them.

The debates have been a ratings blockbuster and cash cow for the cable networks. Between them, CNN and Fox have hosted 11 of the 19 debates to date, bagging huge ratings and lots of advertising dollars.

Any guesses as to why the networks would love to see the Republican primary race continue at a fever pitch all the way to the nominating convention in late August? Think there is a vested interest when commentators and pundits lead you to believe it’s still a real horse race with the nomination in play?

In entertainment as in politics, if you want answers, follow the money. 

Make no mistake, these debates are squarely in the realm of reality TV, not news. The attraction of reality TV is that it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to produce. A reality TV show episode costs half of what any scripted comedy or drama series episode costs, sometimes far less than half. A scripted drama can run $2 to $4 million an episode. When a star like Charlie Sheen gets paid $800,000 per episode off the top, you can see where the money goes.

A reality TV show is paying for production and expenses. It’s rarely paying the people in the show except in a lump sum of prize money, which is a drop in the bucket. Even a big cash prize isn’t much when it gets you 20 to 25 episodes. Per show costs are generally under $500,000 per episode.

Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference between reality TV and politics. Associated Press.

News programming is the original form of reality TV, and its price tag is among the cheapest programming on the air today. No wonder we’re watching so much of it and no wonder the news organizations and networks hope like heck the Republican primary continues for many weeks to come and they can all put a few more debates on the schedule.

No one has to offer any prize money to the candidates on Republican Reality TV, although wouldn’t you like to see them performing a challenge for a reward by crawling through a muddy obstacle course in their suits? The anchors and reporters aren’t getting anything beyond their regular salaries. There’s a tiny bit of production overhead to broadcast a show from a university or convention center.

With overhead so low, the ratings don’t have to be blockbuster to deliver a nice return on investment for the networks.

The cable news networks are jumping for joy over the ratings boost from the debates. In 2011, Fox News Channel averaged 2.2 million viewers daily; MSNBC averaged 902,000 total viewers, with CNN averaging 735,000.

Fox News drew over six million viewers for its debates on September 22 and December 15. CNN bagged over five million viewers for debates Thursday night, and on October 18 and January 19. These numbers are a smashing success no matter how you cut it.

Even the traditional networks did well by airing debates. The NBC News debate that actually aired as a special edition of “Rock Center with Brian Williams” drew over seven million total views on January 23, according to Nielsen Media Research data, the second highest rated debate after the December 10 ABC/Yahoo News debate with 7.6 million viewers.

On the same night, the first new episode of the popular Fox series “House” drew 8.7 million total viewers. “Castle” did better on ABC with 10 million viewers. But considering how much more both these shows cost to produce and air than the debate, NBC comes out the money winner with more bang for their buck. 

With over half the debates airing either on CNN (six) or Fox News (five), the cable networks siphon a lot of viewers away from entertainment television programming. The debates are tripling the average ratings.

So expect the cable news network operations and news operations in general to keep fueling the Republican primary fire as long as possible to make it seem like a real contest all the way to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida the last week of August. 

Courtesy CBS.

And it’s only January. Will someone please vote me off the island or tell me I’m fired right now? Otherwise I’m leaving the house/ranch/Jersey Shore early. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

Debate ratings to date, listed in order from most viewers to least viewers:

Dec. 10, 2011 | ABC/Yahoo News
TOTAL VIEWERS: 7,631,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 2,101,000)

Jan. 23, 2012 | NBC Florida
TOTAL VIEWERS: 7,125,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 2,588,000)

Dec. 15, 2011 |  Fox News Iowa
TOTAL VIEWERS: 6,713,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,865,000)

Jan. 7, 2012 | ABC News New Hampshire
TOTAL VIEWERS: 6,271,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,737,000)

Sept. 22, 2011 | Fox News/Google
TOTAL VIEWERS: 6,107,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,701,000)

Oct. 18, 2011 | CNN
TOTAL VIEWERS: 5,468,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,651,000)

Nov. 12, 2011 | CBS
TOTAL VIEWERS: 5,480,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,520,000)

Jan. 16, 2012 | Fox News South Carolina
TOTAL VIEWERS: 5,475,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,517,000)   

Sept. 7, 2011 | NBC/MSNBC
TOTAL VIEWERS: 5,411,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,728,000)

January 26, 2012 | CNN   
TOTAL VIEWERS: 5,400,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,700,000)

August 11, 2011 | Fox News
TOTAL VIEWERS: 5,050,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,426,000)

Jan. 19, 2012 | CNN Southern GOP Debate South Carolina
TOTAL VIEWERS: 5,022,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,717,000)

Jan. 8, 2012 | NBC Meet the Press Debate
TOTAL VIEWERS: 4,151,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,444,000)

Sept. 12, 2011 | CNN
TOTAL VIEWERS: 3,613,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,132,000)

Nov. 22, 2011 | CNN
TOTAL VIEWERS: 3,599,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 1,041,000)

Nov. 9, 2011 | CNBC
TOTAL VIEWERS: 3,332,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 993,000)

May 5, 2011 | Fox News
TOTAL VIEWERS: 3,258,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 854,000)

June 13, 2011 | CNN
TOTAL VIEWERS: 3,162,000 (25-TO-54-YEAR-OLDS: 918,000)

Oct. 11, 2011 | Bloomberg
TOTAL VIEWERS: 1,300,000*

*Kantar Media estimate; no Nielsen ratings available


Read more:

How Romney can win over the conservatives

CNN Florida Debate—Not great, but not bad

Mitt Romney, real conservative

Newt Gingrich, a one-man CREEP

The race of the RINOs - Republicans In Name Only

Florida GOP NBC Debate: Beth Reinhard of the National Journal is a national disgrace

Mitt Romney and the real state of our union

Newt Gingrich affair: Time to review the rules






Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.


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Copyright © 2012 by Falcon Valley Group





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Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.


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