National Crises and Reality TV Aspect Boost Debate Ratings

This year's primary debates see huge gains

If you thought that this year’s Republican debates seemed to be getting more buzz than ever before, you’d be right. Consider this: Fox’s New Hampshire Republican primary debate in September 2007 attracted 3.2 million viewers. Fox’s September debate this year, in Florida, had a whopping 6.1 million viewers—the highest of any debate so far this season.

And that was no fluke. This year’s debates have garnered significantly higher viewership than primary debates past, starting with the first televised debate this spring bringing in 3.3 million viewers, whereas the first debate in spring 2007 had just 1.8 million.

So why is this year so different from the last go-round? According to The New York Times, cable executives have a few different theories, first and foremost being that the country’s economic worries and growing disapproval of our political system is driving more people—both Republican and Democrat—to pay attention to the 2012 candidates.

Then there’s this year’s heightened “reality TV” aspect of the debates: better production values, more social buzz, and livelier characters.

Networks have admitted to spending more on showier productions in the past six months. CNN—whose intro to September’s Tea Party debate drew comparisons with WrestleMania—put its summer debates in larger venues. “Just anecdotally, the bigger the event feels on TV, the bigger the audience,” CNN's Washington bureau chief Sam Feist told the Times.

An increase in online chatter about the debates has also boosted interest. According to the cable execs, access to conversations and online streaming—Fox and Google counted 6 million streams for their debate last month—have brought greater attention to question-and-answer sessions, while the buzz on Twitter and Facebook helps remind people to tune in.

Then, of course, there are the candidates themselves. From Rick Perry’s gun-slinging proclamations to Michelle Bachmann’s highly publicized gaffes to Herman Cain’s rousing narrative, there’s been no shortage of drama onstage.

While the increase in ratings hasn’t directly benefited cable news networks’ ad sales, since there are fewer ads during debates, insiders said that they still bring prestige to the networks and draw sponsorships—all of which means that debate season is far from slowing down. Although there are already 12 more Republican debates scheduled in the next six months, according to the Times, networks are interested in hosting even more.