Presidential debate schedule: not as easy to fix as I thought!


Although only tangentially related to sports I find the presidential debate schedule interesting:

1st debate: September 26 at 9pm ET (there’s a Falcons/Saints Monday Night Football game that night)

2nd debate: October 9 at 9pm ET (there’s a Giants/Packers Sunday Night Football game that night)

3rd debate: October 19 at 9pm ET (a Wednesday, no conflicts).

Sandwiched between the 1st & 2nd debates is a vice presidential debate on October 4 (a Tuesday).

As Brian Stelter notes:

NFL games are played on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays in the fall. Fridays and Saturdays are effectively ruled out because TV viewing is lower on weekend evenings. That only leaves Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
One complication was Yom Kippur on Tuesday, October 11 and Wednesday, October 12.

For sure, scheduling isn’t easy and it’s complicated further by the broadcast networks launching their new primetime schedules in late September and early October. As Stelter’s article notes the group scheduling the debates “seeks to space out the debates and schedule them for different nights of the week.” The different nights of the week, at least theoretically, somewhat minimizes/spreads around scheduling pain for the broadcast networks.

I started out thinking the scheduling was really, really dumb but downgraded to a mere “suboptimal” after trying to reschedule it given all the constraints.

With regard to the scheduling against NFL games, Stelter writes “That’s true. (It was also true in 2012, and the debates were still high-rated.)”

He’s right about it being true. But I don’t think “true” is specific enough in this case. In 2012 one of the 3 presidential debates went head-to-head with a Monday Night Football game (Lions/Bears) but none of them went against primetime’s most-watched show, Sunday Night Football.  This year two of the three debates will go against NFL, including one against Sunday Night Football.

Going against Sunday Night Football has two impacts. It’s the most-watched show in primetime AND it means NBC won’t be televising the debate. NBC televised all three debates in 2012. But that 2nd impact would be true for any Thursday scheduling too because of games on CBS (which weren’t an issue in 2012.)

Some people think that’s not a big deal and that people can just turn the channel to one of the stations carrying the debate. Others think the scheduling is no big deal because people can just watch on DVR, YouTube, etc at their convenience. Others still believe that at least in this particular election if you haven’t made up your mind already, God help us!

I understand those sentiments and mostly agree with them. I suspect a lot of people feel the same way. But I think maybe most people don’t feel that way and that the debates hold a lot of sway for most people. And that most people will watch them live, like a sporting event and not on DVR or YouTube. I also think there is potential viewership impact by not being available on NBC or CBS even if there will be multiple other options.

Within the constraints the debate schedulers face they should scheduled to optimize for the most possible viewership which means staying away from NFL as much as possible and particularly staying away from NFL that would knock out one of the potential broadcast networks from carrying the debate.  But…

I started out thinking it would be really easy to do a better job and ended up thinking I was naive and optimistic!  To be fair, it IS easy to do a much better job if you simply ignore the VP debate. It’s easy for me to ignore but sadly for the real-life schedulers you can’t actually ignore it. Still, I’d have gone with this:

Tuesday, September 27 (no NFL)

Thursday, October 6 (VP Debate, goes against Cardinals/49ers on CBS)*

Monday, October 10 (Buccaneers/Panthers) Monday Night Football

Wednesday, October 19 (no NFL)

*This schedule similarly spreads the dates, avoids Jewish holidays and optimizes MUCH BETTER for the PRESIDENTIAL debates, but yeah, it kind of pees on the VP debate.  I think that’s the better way to go, but it ain’t perfect.

If the constraint against no two events being scheduled on the same day of the week is a direct request from the broadcast networks (which at least in the golden days of yore, it surely was)  the choices are to either have at least two of the four events go against NFL games or schedule some debates on Friday and/or Saturday. Given lower TV viewership on Friday and Saturday I can’t fault the schedulers for thinking going against two NFL games was the lesser of the evils.

Still, looking towards 2020 I’d push back on the broadcast nets as far as the “no two events on the same day of the week” thing. What made sense for the broadcast networks in 1980, 2000 and maybe even 2012 probably doesn’t make nearly as much sense today, especially with two of the four broadcast nets broadcasting primetime NFL games in the fall.

This article has 3 Comments

  1. What if the four networks air the debate at the same time, with the same ads?

    Each network could have a different pre and post discussion panel.

    I mean, it’s not another entertainment show, it’s a major political decision.

  2. When I look at the existing debate schedule, I don’t see any real reason for complaint.

    The first conflict, a week 3 MNF game between the Falcons and the Saints? That ain’t drawing huge numbers outside of their two local markets, even if it’s a strong rivalry. So the first Prez debate won’t be affected by much–if at all.

    The second conflict, a week 5 SNF clash between the Giants and Packers is a tough one. It’s the only tough one. It looks to be a good matchup (on paper, at least), and it’s SNF, which is always the biggest draw of any NFL game.

  3. CBS should definitely broadcast the Packers/Giants game as scheduled. If one wants to watch the Presidential debate, the individual can do so on a different channel.

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