When Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton meet for debates, TV ratings could explode

Bloomberg

Matthew Shields knows what he'll be doing after work on the last Monday in September. "It's going to be hilarious," the Los Angeles hairstylist says. "I can't wait."

That may not be the appraisal a republic would prefer regarding any aspect of a campaign for the highest office in the land, but Shields speaks for many who are already breathless about the presidential debates. They'll likely pit Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, against Hillary Clinton, who has sewn up the Democratic delegate count. He has called her a "fraud" with "zero natural talent" who should be in prison. She has said he is "temperamentally unfit" with "dangerously incoherent" ideas and "not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes." That was all in about 24 hours. They haven't even stepped onto the same stage yet.

"People are expecting a brawl," says Allen Adamson, a former executive with the branding firm Landor Associates. "Nothing attracts viewers like a brawl."

The Ali vs. Frazier-level match-ups could rival the Super Bowl and bust the presidential-debate viewership record set by Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980. It'd be hard to imagine that happening if one of the contenders was, say, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, instead of a former reality-TV star with an arsenal of put-Twitter-in-overdrive bon mots. There are other factors, such as Clinton's shot at becoming the first female commander-in-chief and the fact both are registering unheard-of negative-favorability ratings. Both are so despised in some quarters they're mesmerizing.

"It's just got everything going for it," says Jim Lehrer, the former "PBS NewsHour" anchor who moderated his 12th debate in 2012.

Networks including NBC and Fox have delayed debuts of some shows so as not to lose out on ratings. Marketers are scratching heads over how to monetize the affairs -- they'll run with no commercials -- but entrepreneurs like Vicky Brago-Mitchell haven't wasted time; she's selling T-shirts with images of Trump and Clinton engaged in a boxing match, with the tagline, "The most violent fight in the world." Dan Mueller, creator of an online debate-drinking game, is compiling a list of words to populate the 2016 version.

"We'll probably pick up some highlights from the primary debates, when Trump did real well with 'China' and 'tremendous,"' Mueller says. "We don't want to go to crazy with it because we can get people really, really drunk." (For the uninitiated, every time the candidate of your choice utters a selected word, you must imbibe.) Scores are typically in the range of 30 to 50 sips, or, Mueller estimates, about three beers.

Calendars have been marked around the world. Tristan Averett, an American who runs a consulting firm in Lisbon, is planning slumber parties; the debates will air at 2 a.m. in the Portuguese city. In Dayton, Ohio, Ryan Rushing will forgo a summer vacation or job so he can volunteer to help Wright State University get ready for the first one on Sept. 26. Washington University in St. Louis will host the second on Oct. 9, and the University of Nevada in Las Vegas the third on Oct. 19.

Unlike primary debates, which are put on by media outlets, general-election battles are organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan nonprofit. They're supposed to be cerebral affairs, with live audiences of 600 to 1,000 people who are asked to refrain from booing or shouting, and who in the past have generally complied. Any network can run them at no cost.

Sept. 26 will be 56 years to the day of the first televised general-election debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. It was watched by 66 million people in grainy black and white, and the four debates between the two drew 60 percent of U.S. households on average. Less than 40 percent tuned in for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, Nielsen data show.

But "this election is unlike any election I'm familiar with," says Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the commission's co-founder. "There's a dramatic change going on in American culture with regards to politics, and we want to make sure that we can best inform the American people."

To do that, he says, the commission is talking with "Facebook and Twitter and you-name-it social-media platform" to disseminate the events as widely as possible. Facebook launched a live-video streaming service last year, and Twitter has begun embedding live video into users' timelines. The first Obama-Romney duel generated more than 10 million posts on Twitter, making it the most-tweeted U.S. political event -- another record waiting to be broken.

The Reagan-Carter spar pulled in 81 million viewers. For comparison, 114 million watched the 2015 Super Bowl, the biggest TV event in U.S. history. Globally, the trophy probably goes to the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, seen by what Nielsen reckons was 2 billion people, or almost one third of the world's population.

The no-commercial rule is painful for companies, and a few may try to take advantage of debate fever; during the primaries, a Trojan ad showed different types of prophylactics being questioned by a moderator and arguing about which is "most qualified to be erected." The Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain is brainstorming ideas, including the catchphrase, "There's no debate, there's no fresher fish than ours."

Marketers have to be especially careful this season about not alienating customers, says Mark Fitzloff, executive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Oregon. "The one thing mass consumer brands run away from as fast as they can is controversy. When you have an election that's as divisive as this one is going to be, I can't think of any client who would want to touch it with a 10-foot pole."

For hosts, the debates are months in the making. Wright State, named after aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur, is building a TV studio, developing special curriculum and designing a line of themed swag that will include bowler hats, a Wright brothers trademark. A countdown clock on its website ticks away.

Robert Sweeney, the university's executive vice president for planning and chair of its debate committee, has an $8 million budget and expects 5,000 members of the media. "As a political science student, it's a dream come true," says Rushing, the volunteer, who will begin pursuing a master's degree at Wright State this fall.

Spectacle aside, performances on the stage matter. Voters for years have singled out debates "more than any other single factor" in deciding how to cast ballots, according to exit-poll data compiled by the commission. This year they'll be must-watch because the race is so compelling. "There is certainly added interest," says Averett, secretary of Democrats Abroad in Portugal. "We had a 50 percent increase in voter turnout for our global primary."

In Mexico City, Joshua Castillo, an engineering student, says many Mexicans will be watching, fascinated as never before by U.S. presidential politics in no small part because of Trump's proclamation that some Mexican immigrants are rapists and his promise to build a border wall paid for by their government.

In Moscow, Dmitriy Kosmodemiyanskiy, a money manager at Otkritie Asset Management, says that "Russians aren't very interested," considering it will mean getting up at 4 a.m.

But in the U.S., it'll be embarrassing to miss a debate, Adamson says. "No one's going to want to be at a dinner party and not have an opinion on who hit the knockout punch."

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