CNN is on a town hall tear, offering viewers session after session with the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, topped off with a town hall assembly line Monday night that saw five would-be presidents featured in a prime-time row.
It’s been a ratings catastrophe.
While some high-profile candidates such as Sen. Bernard Sanders provided a slight boost in February, other candidates have sent the network’s numbers tumbling. Former Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s turn this month cost nearly 40 percent of viewers compared to the same time slot on another week.
The 2020 race may be all-consuming for inside-the-Beltway types, but for most Americans, it’s just not that captivating.
“It’s just too far away,” said Eddie Fielding, a businessman and former elected official outside New Orleans.
Mr. Fielding, 70, and his wife, Becky, were among dozens of patrons fanned out Monday night among walls of televisions at Walk-Ons, a popular Southern “bistreaux and bar.” Both of them were aware cable news had put town halls in heavy rotation.
Both the Fieldings’ knowledge and minimal interest were mirrored by most people there as the Democratic candidates rolled on through the night.
“I think that’s partly true,” said Chris Dalton, a 55-year-old Alabamian, when asked if the lack of interest had to do with timing. “I think it also has something to do with who the candidates are, and I don’t want to spend hours listening to any of the ones on tonight.”
Mr. Dalton said he had listened on satellite radio to Mr. Sanders’ recent town hall on Fox but hadn’t watched any of them.
Nor had David Robertson, 28, who said he considered himself reasonably engaged but overwhelmed by the lengthy lineup of Democrats.
“I like to review the positions of some candidates, and I will do that next year when deciding who to vote for,” Mr. Robertson said. “But I’m not going to do that now when there are 20 of them.”
CNN spent considerable time and effort promoting Monday’s town halls as if it were blockbuster programming.
“The network is also airing promos in the same hard-hitting style it has used before — complete with an over-excited announcer using each candidate’s last name and mentioning they will face off ‘on the same stage’ and ‘back-to-back’ — as if the whole event is a wrestling match,” NewscastStudio, a trade site, noted Monday.
Despite the big promotion, Monday’s ratings fell flat. The five hours of town halls placed no higher than 16th for the night’s cable programs, with 1.2 million viewers overall in the 25-54 age bracket. Both Fox News, with 2.3 million viewers, and MSNBC, with 1.8 million, fared better. CNN’s 10 p.m. town hall with California Sen. Kamala Harris brought in the most viewers, with 1.4 million.
Clearly, the calendar isn’t working in the politicians’ favor. The first Democratic presidential debates are two months out, and the first votes won’t be cast for at least eight more months. The general election itself is more than 18 months away, and the country is less than six months removed from the exhausting midterm contests.
Even some of the professionals see the timing as tough.
“It is very early and the vast majority of voters are not yet worried about choosing their presidential candidate for 2020,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University. “Journalists and insiders are already following the election breathlessly, but most people aren’t. And if you’re not a CNN junkie, you may not even be aware of these town halls. Besides, even junkies like me don’t have time to watch all of them. So I am not surprised that interest has been relatively low at this point.”
Indeed, not even all the political junkies have found themselves riveted.
“I must admit that as interested as I am in all this, I haven’t watched one of them myself,” acknowledged Bob Mann, a professor at LSU’s Manship School of Journalism.
“Still, it’s very early,” Mr. Mann said. “What I think may be most important is the fact that most Democratic primary voters understand that only the voters/caucus-goers in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will have much say in the eventual nominee. Two-thirds or more of the current candidates will have dropped out by the time the Nevada caucuses roll around.”
The opinions of professionals and average voters on the town hall format were mixed, with some saying they provide an important marker for where a candidate stands on an issue before calibrating his or her position in the heat of a campaign.
But cable news is already dominated by coverage of polls, candidate announcements and strategy pieces.
Substance-based pieces about positions on issues are less frequent, though candidates using increasingly strident language to criticize President Trump is an easy way to earn a few seconds of soundbite time.
Fox News and MSNBC have delved into some town halls, but CNN has been the major practitioner this year, giving space to candidates who struggle to crack 1 percent in the polls and whose faces and names would be unknown to most Americans.
“CNN does not host presidential town halls for ratings,” the company said on Twitter when Mr. Trump mocked its low viewership. “We host them because substantive conversations with presidential candidates inform and empower voters to make the best possible choices for their families and communities. And it’s the right thing to do.”
CNN’s tweet came April 11, one day after a town hall with Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand cratered, bringing in just 491,000 viewers between 10 and 11:15 p.m.
That trailed badly the hour’s leader, Fox News’ “Ingraham’s Angle,” which attracted 2.38 million viewers. MSNBC’s “The Last Word” program with host Lawrence O’Donnell finished second with 1.86 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research figures.
Ms. Gillibrand’s appearance was reportedly CNN’s lowest watched weekday hour since June 2016.
One long-time campaign watcher said he still sees a significant appetite for the Democratic primary.
“I have been in Texas, Tennessee, Florida and New York (besides DC),” said Charlie Cook, found of the Cook Report, which for decades has been important reading in Washington. “I have found more interest in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination than I have seen in the 47 years I have been around national politics.”
He said the town hall audience isn’t a good yardstick to gauge how invested voters are, but he said he was impressed with the cable networks’ commitment to keep doing them despite the slim numbers.
Some experts saw that commitment as a wakeup call.
Television critics from the Baltimore Sun to the Daily Beast think the cable news channels feel they didn’t do enough to expose President Trump in the last go-around.
“MSNBC and CNN allowed themselves to be played far too often,” the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik wrote in a piece that also accused Fox News of “totally [selling] out to Candidate Trump.”
Christina Bellantoni, a former Washington reporter who now teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, also saw regret as a motivator for the networks.
“They weren’t asking Trump hard questions like they were Bush and Rubio, they treated Trump like a sideshow,” Ms. Bellantoni said. “That helped Trump, and then it was too late, he wasn’t giving serious interviews and Trump won, which is a bad thing.”
Mr. Trump, for his part, appears to be watching at least some of the town halls.
He took to Twitter last week, after Fox News aired an hourlong event with Mr. Sanders, to criticize the format.
But he joked with the network about doing one himself.
It is not clear if anything serious will come of the exchange.