NBC Battled Brutal Technical Difficulties and Misbehaved Candidates. But Its First Debates Were a Success.


MIAMI — There were high stakes! for NBC at night two of the Democratic debates down here in South Florida. Your humble Mediaite correspondent watched the second iteration of the 2020 carnival from the airy (and thank fuck, air-conditioned) halls of the NBC spin room, in the Ziff Opera House. There were some minor technical hiccups, but nothing as dire as Wednesday night’s, when Chuck Todd was forced to call an untimely commercial break after a painful few minutes of mic failures.

Hurdles for NBC presented themselves early. A source told Mediaite that there was a small panic moments before the debate as staffers had to rush to fill up the hall with bodies when they realized there wasn’t enough meat in the room. The broadcast managed to slap some makeup on that snafu, and it went unnoticed on air.

While NBC’s technical staff focused on smoothing out the broadcast, its moderators were challenged by an unruly band of candidates, armed with shouting and a blatant disregard for the show’s time constraints. The debate hosts, repeatedly forced to instruct candidates to pipe down, could have benefitted from some sort of mic-cutting device.

Fox News anchor Bret Baier told Mediaite his network uses a bell to deal with such nonsense from attention-starved candidates.

NBC at least had Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). During a particularly wild period of shouting between candidates, the former prosecutor forced her way in to put an end to the bickering with a sharp line: “Hey, guys, you know what, America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”

Baier described that quip from Harris as her first big “moment” of the night.

NBC’s moderators deftly handled other precarious moments, like when Harris launched into a broadside against Biden, leading two a stunning five-minute exchange between the two candidates that reportedly left the frontrunner’s campaign freaking out and Harris on top of the 2020 pile. NBC’s moderators stayed out of it, and were rewarded with the best T.V. moment of the night.

The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, who brutalized NBC for the first debate in a column (“the whole thing felt like a nightmare version of speed dating”) praised the network for its handling of the Biden-Harris showdown. “NBC deserves real credit for not getting in the way by enforcing rules that were made to be broken,” she wrote.

“I think they did well for the circumstances,” Baier — who co-hosted all of the Republican primary debates held by Fox News in the 2016 cycle — told Mediaite. He pointed to the constraints of the debate setting, with ten candidates vying for equal time across two hours, as a challenge to moderators seeking order and fairness.

Savannah [Guthrie] did a great job redirecting,” he added. “That’s the challenge when questions go unanswered by candidates.”

Sinclair host Eric Bolling gave surprising props to Rachel Maddow, the liberal MSNBC host whose selection as debate moderator drew protests from conservative critics.

“Rachel Maddow was the best moderator, which surprised me, being the opinion host that she is,” Bolling told Mediaite in the spin room post-debate. “She was lively, energetic, informed, she was to the point. And she kept the most control of the candidates.”

“Her questions were perfect,” Bolling added. “I didn’t see that coming. She was fair, tough and in control. Hats off.”

While technical difficulties kept NBC comms team busy — and earned the network a predictable attack from President Donald Trump — it’s hard to imagine they will be the lasting impression from these first debates. There was the Harris-Biden moment, which, if punditry is anything to go by, has flipped the race on its head.

Then there are the hard numbers: Night one brought in a stunning 15.3 million viewers for the network across NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo. Nine million watched the online stream of the event. That was the just warm-up act. Numbers for night two are sure to exceed those, with estimates currently at 17 million — which would make it the highest-rated Democratic primary debate in history.

In the spin room after Thursday night’s show, NBC News chairman Andy Lack looked pleased.

[Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images]

Have a tip we should know? tips@mediaite.com

Filed Under:

Aidan McLaughlin is the Editor in Chief of Mediaite. Send tips via email: aidan@mediaite.com. Ask for Signal. Follow him on Twitter: @aidnmclaughlin