In September 2007, Fox News put Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, Rudy Giuliani and a man who was, back then, a long shot for the Republican presidential nomination, John McCain, on a debate stage in New Hampshire. The face-off attracted 3.2 million viewers—the most of any debate so far that year.
This September, Fox’s debate—in Florida, with Mr. Romney, Mr. Paul and new names like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann—attracted almost twice as many viewers: 6.1 million, the highest so far this year. The very first televised Republican debate this spring attracted almost 3.3 million viewers, while the first debate in the spring of 2007 had 1.8 million.
What explains the fact that debates this year are garnering almost twice as many viewersas any of the early debates, Democratic or Republican, did four years ago? Cable news executives don’t know for sure, but they have theories. Chief among them is that widespread anxiety about the economy and disapproval of the political system is building viewership.
“The ‘pox on all of their houses’ sentiment of the summer debt limit debate is clearly affecting voters,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, the senior vice president for NBC News specials. “It’s driven them to be a lot more interested and more engaged in the process early on.”
“The issues have never quite hit home to this degree,” said Michael Clemente, senior vice president for news editorial at Fox News.
Other theories involve livelier contenders, showier production values for the debates and an increase in online chatter about them—some of the same traits that make reality TV shows successful.
The record-high ratings do not benefit the cable news networks directly through advertising sales, because there are few ads during debates. But the debates do benefit the networks indirectly, by attracting election-season sponsorships and by lending prestige to their brands. “It’s a great tent pole,” Mr. Clemente said. “You get to showcase your best people.”
While that has been true for decades, it may matter more now that cable news channels are effectively politics channels around the clock, making them more eager than ever to have screen time with the candidates. Exceptionally early interest in the election has revealed itself not just in the debate ratings but “in clicks online for political stories and in ratings for candidate interviews,” said Sam Feist, the Washington bureau chief for CNN, which will host the next debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas.
Television producers have added a little more sizzle to the debates this year—the introduction to September’s CNN-Tea Party debate reminded many of a “WrestleMania” match—and they say they have, in some cases, spent a little more than in previous years on the productions.
CNN intentionally held its debates this summer in large arenas. “I’m not sure that there’s a direct correlation between production values and ratings, but just anecdotally, the bigger the event feels on TV, the bigger the audience” that tunes in, Mr. Feist said.
(The introductory theme for Tuesday’s debate sounds a lot like an Olympics opening ceremony theme.)
Over all, though, Mr. Feist and his counterparts say they have made no major changes to the marketing, publicity or format of debates. For the most part, they credit the people on stage and the dramatic situations that those characters, for lack of a better word, create. Mr. Clemente said, “If I said, ‘There’s going to be a show on where you can find out how you might get a better job or retirement income,’ you’d go, ‘Geez, all right, let me listen to that.’ ”
In the early days of the presidential primary race, in May and June, the audience was more than three million each for the first debate on Fox and the second debate on CNN. The audience rose to five million on Fox in August and to 5.4 million on MSNBC in early September. A week later, the CNN-Tea Party debate drew 3.6 million; that decline was attributed to competition from “Monday Night Football” and tennis matches on other channels. Then came the current cycle’s record-setter, 6.1 million on Fox.
Polling data shows that Republicans, determined to make President Obama a one-term president, are more enthusiastic about this election cycle than they were in 2008. Many of the Democrats that felt upbeat then do not feel nearly as upbeat now. But that enthusiasm swap alone does not explain the ratings gains, because no Democratic or Republican debate drew more than five million viewers until January 2008.
Debates have been focal points of the Republican campaign to a greater degree than they were in 2007 and 2008. While the candidates are traveling and speaking in early primary states, “a debate is a much better way for them to see all of them at once,” Mr.Clemente said, referring to voters.
Because there are no debates on the Democratic side this season, Democrats may be tuning in to the Republican debates earlier than they did in 2007 to sizeup the competition for Mr. Obama.
“Clearly, on the Democratic side, there’s a lot of recognition that there’s going to be a tough battle at the ballot box,” Mr. Lukasiewicz said.
The most recent debate, on Oct. 11, was shown on Bloomberg TV, which is much smaller than Fox or CNN and does not subscribe to public Nielsen ratings. But Bloomberg, too, saw a huge spike around 8 p.m. when the debate started, according to a Kantar Media study of set-top box data. Kantar projected that an average of 1.3 million people watched the debate, Bloomberg’s first.
For that debate and other debates, access to online streaming and conversations seem to have helped the question-and-answer sessions gain more attention. Fox and Google counted more than six million online streams for its debate last month, for instance. Just as Twitter and Facebook have steered viewers to sports telecasts and awards shows, the sites may be reminding people of the debates, too.
There are 12 more Republican debates scheduled in the next six months, and the channels said they were interested in hosting even more—assuming, Mr. Clemente of Fox News said, “the candidates are up for it.”