The next Republican primary debate could put NewsNation on the map

(Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

The next Republican primary debate could put NewsNation on the map

Stephen Battaglio

Dec. 5, 2023

When the candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination meet in Tuscaloosa,




There will likely be millions of viewers on Wednesday for the network that carries the event.

NewsNation, the cable news channel launched in 2020 by Nexstar Media Group, sparked the first national debate in its short history after months of negotiations with the Republican National Committee. The two-hour presentation at 5:00 PM Pacific will also be simulcast on the CW broadcast network, which airs on KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles. (KTLA also repeats the program at 8pm Pacific).

Primary debates, dominated by the political parties, are valuable features that attract a much larger audience than regular news programs. The first GOP event of the 2024 primary season drew $13 million for Fox News on Sept. 27, according to Nielsen data, even without the leading candidate, former President Donald Trump.

Successful debate audiences tend to dwindle, but the third candidate rally, shown on NBC on Nov. 8, still drew 7 million people, a large number in today’s fragmented TV landscape. If NewsNation can reach half that number, it would be a big step for a network where its highest-rated show, “Cuomo,” averages about 150,000 viewers.

Tammy Haddad, a media consultant who produced debates during her time as political director of MSNBC, said the event could be an awareness-raising turning point for the fledgling network.

“Hosting a presidential debate has traditionally brought a lot of attention to a channel,” Haddad said. “It’s a real opportunity for them to put them on an equal footing with the other networks when it comes to politics.”

NewsNation has survived a difficult rollout. Nexstar launched the channel in 2020, near the end of the polarizing Trump administration, a period in which cable audiences became divided into political tribes.

Conservatives gravitated toward Fox News, while liberals aligned themselves with CNN and MSNBC, especially in prime time, when provocative commentators attracted the largest audiences.

Nexstar executives promised that NewsNation would be an unbiased alternative to the established networks.

But the mission statement was called into question early on when the staff learned that Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive who suffered collateral damage in the sexual harassment scandal that brought down Roger Ailes, served as an advisor (he still does ).

A poorly received soft interview with then-President Trump also raised suspicions that the network was courting conservative viewers, rather than a


an entity in the middle. Top executives at the startup, who emerged from local news, left eight months after launch.

There were other obstacles too. NewsNation took over the channel position from WGN America and continued to air entertainment shows acquired by previous owner Tribune Media.

The entertainment shows have now disappeared from the weekday line

up and NewsNation will have 24/7 news by the end of summer 2024.

Nexstar bosses remained patient and continued investing in the channel


Despite the inevitable decline of the cable industry, with millions of consumers cutting the cord for pay TV every year.

The company tapped Michael Corn, who led the top-rated “Good Morning America,” as president of NewsNation. He has hired correspondents, producers and executives from a wide range of media outlets, including CBS, ABC, Fox News and CNN, and will add more as weekend programming expands.

The Chicago-based network has built new studios in New York and Washington. Nextstar acquired


e Hill, a popular political site, and developed it into a daily Beltway-based TV show also heard on SiriusXM radio.

The network also boosted its Washington coverage with the appointment of Chris Stirewalt as political director. (Stirewalt was fired from Fox News after the outlet faced backlash from viewers over his early call to Arizona for then-candidate Joe Biden on the night of 2020


residential elections).

The prime time line

up was revamped with the addition of Chris Cuomo.


he was kicked out of CNN for his involvement in helping his brother Andrew, the former governor of New York, deal with a sexual harassment scandal, Cuomo has enough of a following to care


network an appointment show in prime time.

The network also added former “ABC World News Tonight” host Elizabeth Vargas, who will be one of the debate moderators alongside Sirius XM radio and podcast host Megyn Kelly, who was appointed by the Republican National Committee; and Eliana Johnson, editor


head of the Washington Free Beacon.

NewsNation’s ratings have remained modest in comparison


the established competition at Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, but the network has seen year-over-year growth. In October, NewsNation averaged 118,000 viewers in prime time, an increase of 23%. The network’s strongest ratings market is Los Angeles.

Nexstar does not disclose financials for NewsNation, but its executives have told Wall Street analysts that the station has been profitable since launch.

Cable and satellite TV operators have paid for the channel from day one, unusual for a newly launched service. Nextstar is the largest owner of TV stations

in the U.S

including network affiliates that offer NFL football, providing strong leverage in negotiating transportation costs.

NewsNation also doesn’t have the old costs built into network news departments, which still pay a lot

million salaries for top presenters, despite a steady decline in viewership.

“They have layers and layers of management and departments that have been built up over the years,” Corn said in a recent interview. “We built this place from the ground up and we built it smart. There’s just not a lot of waste.”

In fulfilling its mission to be more neutral than its established competitors, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, Nexstar has cited several independent sources that monitor the political leanings of journalism organizations. One of the firms, Ad Fontes, publishes a media bias chart that focuses on NewsNation. NewsGuard, an independent journalism and technology resource, also gave NewsNation high scores for credibility and transparency.

“We are addressing all aspects of the issue and trying to do it fairly,” Corn said. “When people become aware of what we do every day, they will be really impressed.”

Nextstar has touted NewsNation’s recognition as a centrist outlet to advertisers, who have become increasingly skittish about placing their commercials on politically polarizing news programs.

NewsNation, which uses the slogan “News for All America,” has also tried to differentiate itself by spending more time on stories outside Washington, such as the chemical train explosion in Palestine, Ohio; and the ongoing investigation into the accidental shooting of Halyna Hutchins by actor Alec Baldwin on the film set of “Rust.”

But a successful debate is a sure way to capture the attention of a national audience.

Vargas said in an interview last week that she plans to get the participating candidates, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, governor of Florida. Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, will focus more on Trump, who has not participated in any of the events so far but continues to lead his competitors in the polls by a wide margin. (Trump is also ignoring Wednesday’s event, though he will be helped in the unlikely event he changes his mind.)

“Right now they’re running against Trump,” Vargas said. “So there will be a lot of questions about him.”

Haddad said she expects NewsNation’s event to have high production standards since the executives and producers have experience organizing previous debates.

“The question is whether this will change the trajectory of their audience and business,” Haddad added.


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