How Election 2016 Candidates Are Turning TV Into Ratings Gold

Ileane Rudolph
tina fey, donald trump, snl
Dana Edelson/NBC

At 8 pm on February 17, some of TV’s biggest reality personalities were pitted against each other across various networks: American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest on Fox; Survivor’s Jeff Probst on CBS—and the newest reality stars, the presidential candidates, in dueling town halls on MSNBC (Donald Trump) and CNN (Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio).

Real estate tycoon Donald Trump flashes the thumbs-up as he arrives on stage for the start of the prime time Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

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Donald Trump

Network executives and viewers can’t get enough of the candidates. “There’s always a love affair between TV and exciting events, as well as events that are important in people’s lives,” says Face the Nation host John Dickerson, who on February 13 moderated CBS’s Republican debate, which drew 13.4 million viewers. “The 2016 election fits both these categories.”

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As a result, all over broadcast and cable, bookers are busy wrangling the candidates, who they know are ratings gold. Debates, town halls and rallies have become must-see TV, starting with the first GOP debate held on Fox News last August that attracted 24 million viewers, making it the most-watched nonsports program on cable ever. (The debate was so huge that Fox News ranked No. 1 in primetime cable that month, ahead of big players like TNT, USA and TBS.) “In a time of declining viewership, that’s quite noteworthy,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

larry david, bernie sanders, snl

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Larry David as Bernie Sanders on SNL

The tune-in for the Fox News debate set the stage for those that followed. Boosted by the country’s interest in the outspoken Trump, Republican debates have averaged 16 million viewers. (The January 28 debate that the real estate tycoon boycotted was the Republican side’s second-lowest rated.) While the smaller Democratic field isn’t drawing quite as many viewers, they are still breaking records, averaging 9 million. CNN alone has hosted three debates and four town halls so far, which have significantly lifted the network’s primetime numbers. As of press time, three more Republican and two Democratic debates have been scheduled through March 10 across various networks.

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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton

“Donald Trump is the reason for most of this phenomenon,” Jamieson believes. “The Trump effect is pushing past the usual interviews. Cable news outlets have noticed that when they cut away from regular programming to show live footage of Trump rallies, their ratings go up. If Trump were to exit [the race], surely fewer people would tune in, all other things being static.”

Not so fast, cautions veteran campaign consultant Mark McKinnon, now a producer of Showtime’s docuseries The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. “There’s a lot more going on in the Republican primary [than just Trump],” he says. “It’s like a NASCAR race; a lot of cars and the possibility of more crashes.”

“The media is covering the campaign more than ever before because it’s more entertaining than any election in a long time,” McKinnon adds. “You have a billionaire real estate tycoon on one side—and no matter what you think of Trump, he’s entertaining—and [Bernie Sanders], a 74-year-old avowed socialist winning the New Hampshire primary. There’s a lot of drama there.”

hillary clinton, snl

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Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton on SNL, opposite the real Hillary

Not to mention comedy. Late-night entertainment shows are also benefiting from candidates’ participation. When front-runners Trump, Hillary Clinton and Sanders were guests on The Tonight Show, The Late Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, ratings went up. Samantha Bee launched her new weekly TBS show, Full Frontal, just in time to join the fray. While showing photos of Trump and Sanders, she joked on her second episode, “There we were in a totally normal election cycle, blissfully trying to choose between a freshly sandpapered reality star and a human Che Guevara T-shirt.”

Saturday Night Live earned 9.3 million viewers, the highest in two years, when Trump hosted the November 7 episode, and the sketch show has won kudos and viewers with self-deprecating cameos by Clinton and Sanders (and just days after Sanders’s appearance, he won the New Hampshire primary). SNL has been creatively revitalized with satirical takes like Kate McKinnon’s manic Hillary Clinton, Jay Pharoah’s somnolent Ben Carson, Taran Killam’s smarmy Ted Cruz and the return of Darrell Hammond’s seductive Bill Clinton and Tina Fey’s “Mama Grizzly” Sarah Palin.

“If you’re not on TV, you’re not in the race,” says Mark McKinnon, “so you better figure out how to get on. Enjoy the free publicity and forget paying for TV ads.”