The Math Behind CNN’s Simulcast of the PBS Democratic Debate

By Mark Joyella 

When PBS announced a week ago that it had signed an agreement to simulcast tonight’s Democratic presidential debate on CNN, the public broadcaster described the arrangement as a win-win: PBS gets money to cover its production costs, while CNN brings an expanded audience to the debate, a potentially pivotal face-off between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

NewsHour Productions president Rick Schneider told The Washington Post the arrangement, while risking diluting his audience, would also boost NewsHour’s bottom line:

“I think the PBS audience will watch on their PBS station, and CNN will expose our debate to [CNN’s] audience,” he said. He added, “It will raise awareness of PBS NewsHour and our anchors…I’m not worried that it will cannibalize our audience.” CNN’s fees will also enable WETA to come “close to break-even” on producing the debate, he said.


Neither network has released precise financial details of the licensing arrangement, but the logistics look like this: on both PBS and CNN, the moderators will be PBS NewsHour co-anchors Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, and on both networks the event will be called “The PBS NewsHour Democratic Presidential Debate.”

The only difference between 9 and 11 p.m. ET? A brief intermission, when CNN will break from PBS’ coverage and give viewers two things they won’t see on PBS: Anderson Cooper–and a few commercials.

Ratings may be substantial, given the drama that has overwhelmed the Democratic race since the photo-finish in Iowa and Sanders’ massive win in New Hampshire. Airing on a weeknight in prime time, that one commercial break will likely sell at a premium.

After the first debate featuring Donald Trump delivered historic ratings to Fox News Channel last August, debates have driven up advertising rates.

When CNN hosted the first debate after Fox News, some industry insiders reported advertisers would pay up to $150,000 for a 30-second spot.

And yet, like the campaign itself, there may be some exaggeration when it comes to debate premiums. Back in November, Fox News Channel chairman and chief executive Roger Ailes told us the suggestion that CNN was selling 30-second spots for up to $200,000 or more was “bullshit… they couldn’t get that if they sold the network.”