When NBC set out to schedule a television town hall with President Trump, the top priorities were safety and parity with Trump’s challenger Joe Biden.
The network’s Biden town hall went off without a hitch in Miami, Florida on October 5. NBC’s plans for Trump are almost identical: The same outdoor venue in Miami, the same 8 p.m. time slot, the same 60-minute allotment of time.
But there is one big difference: ABC already announced it will be holding a town hall with Biden at the same time on the same night.
So now NBC is “giving Trump exactly what he wants,” in the words of one exasperated senior staffer: a made-by-TV rivalry between the president and Biden.
Some staffers inside NBC News and MSNBC are also perturbed by the decision, with some likening it to collusion between the Trump campaign and the network, sources said. No one from the news division has publicly criticized the move.
The dueling town halls will air Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern time, on the same night that the Commission on Presidential Debates was originally scheduled to hold a town hall-style debate between Trump and Biden.
Now, instead, the two men will talk past each other on competing networks.
“Having dueling town halls is bad for democracy,” former NBC “Today” show star Katie Couric tweeted Wednesday. “Voters should be able to watch both and I don’t think many will. This will be good for Trump because people like to watch his unpredictability. This is a bad decision.”
Let’s take a step way back and see how this conflict erupted.
The town hall business
Television networks compete to hold individual town halls with presidential candidates, both during the primaries and during the general election. This concept pre-dates Trump.
The networks run commercials in and around the town halls, but executives say these events are not primarily profit- or ratings-driven – rather, they are part of a news division’s mission to cover the campaigns. There were several occasions during the primaries this cycle when CNN town halls with lesser-known candidates were ratings drags, not boons.
Trump toots his ratings horn all the time, but he is not an automatic audience magnet either. ABC’s town hall with Trump in mid-September averaged a modest 3.8 million viewers. (When NBC held back-to-back events with Trump and Hillary Clinton in September 2016, more than 10 million tuned in.)
The president also held a town hall on Fox News in May, but the ABC event was his only televised town hall so far this fall.
ABC said Biden had been extended a similar invitation, but had not accepted it yet.
Biden, instead, participated in a town hall on CNN later that same week. Then Biden participated in the October 5 event on NBC. Both networks said Trump was welcome to accept a similar invitation.
Trump, of course, has trashed both CNN and NBC for several years – to the point that some journalists have been placed in danger – and has attacked the parent companies of both news organizations.
Nevertheless, tenets of journalistic fairness mean that the president is more than welcome to participate in a town hall, even if that is to the dismay of many viewers. Of course, usually candidate town halls aren’t directly competing with one another.
Thursday night competition
ABC’s offer to Biden and NBC’s offer to Trump both loomed large when the bipartisan debate commission – under pressure to enforce Covid-19 safety standards – announced on October 8 that its planned town hall-style debate on October 15 would be held virtually. At the time, the president was recovering from coronavirus.
Without consulting with the campaigns, the commission said that candidates and questioners would be in different locations, and would be connected via a control room, the way television newscasts are.
Trump immediately bristled at the virtual format and said he would not attend the debate. The Biden campaign said Biden was still willing to debate, but aides lined up a backup option: a town hall on ABC.
A debate-over-the-debate ensued, and the next day the debate commission scrapped the event altogether, which meant the ABC town hall would move forward.
In the eyes of both ABC and NBC News executives, the canceled debate created a hole in the schedules of the two candidates, and they wanted to fill it.
On the evening of Friday the 9th, Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller said Trump had his own town hall in the works: “We’re actually going to be on multiple networks at the same time” as Biden, Miller said, adding, “We’re gonna have a much bigger audience than Joe.”
Sources at NBC confirmed that a Miami town hall was in the works, but the event was conditioned on the president proving that he was no longer contagious with the virus.
Although Miller said Trump’s town hall would take place “at the same time,” ABC had not yet announced its Biden town hall time slot.
Executives at NBC expected that ABC would schedule Biden at 9 p.m., since ABC’s Trump town hall had started at 9, and it seemed logical. NBC’s planners were eyeing the 8 p.m. time slot since that’s when their Biden event took place.
But ABC announced on Sunday morning that Biden would be on from 8 to 9:30 p.m. on Thursday. ABC’s reasoning: It was planning on an hour of pre-debate coverage at 8 p.m. that night. So the news division already had blocked off the time.
ABC is also going to run a half hour of analysis after the Biden event from 9:30 until 10 p.m.
NBC News could have decided to move the Trump town hall to 9, 9:30 or 10 p.m., but went with parity to the Biden event instead, which meant an 8 p.m. start time.
One source at the network put some of the blame for the overlap on its rival, ABC, asking why it wouldn’t won’t move their Biden event from 8 to 9, in line with ABC’s previous town hall.
An ABC News spokeswoman declined to comment. ABC, for what it’s worth, did announce its plans several days before NBC did.
When NBC announced its Trump forum on Wednesday, the press release said the “one-hour town hall will follow the same format and will air in the time slot” as Biden’s did.
Moving one of the town halls to a different day is not seen as a viable option, given the crowded schedules of the candidates.
Both town halls will also be available on-demand, of course, so voters can watch whenever they want.
That hasn’t stopped any of the criticism.
Aspen Digital executive director Vivian Schiller, formerly the chief digital officer at NBC News, called NBC’s decision “shameful” in a Twitter post on Wednesday morning: “The point of a news organization is to serve the public. This is the opposite. @NBCNews could literally run this any other day, or any other time. Shameful.”
“This is a bad result for American voters, who should not be forced to choose which to watch,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s communications school, and previously the senior vice president of specials at NBC News. “So much is still going wrong with how TV journalism copes, or still fails to cope, with @realDonaldTrump.”
The moderator of the NBC town hall will be “Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie. Along with facilitating audience member questions, Guthrie will have ample time to question Trump, who has mostly steered clear of the national press corps and only appeared on pro-Trump shows since coming down with Covid-19.
Kyle Pope, the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, tweeted that “this is a craven ratings stunt, caving to the Trumpian impulses the network helped hone.”
Trump’s history with NBC, as the star of “The Apprentice,” was invoked by many commenters on social media on Wednesday. Some concluded that Trump specifically wanted a head to head ratings matchup with Biden. Now, that’s exactly what he is getting.
The NBC event will be simulcast on two cable channels, MSNBC and CNBC, and streamed on the internet as well, all but guaranteeing a bigger audience for Trump than for Biden on ABC.