After Joe Biden’s campaign announced a town hall with ABC News following President Donald Trump’s declaration that he wouldn’t participate in the second debate, the president and his team sensed an opportunity for another media spectacle.
On Wednesday, NBC News delivered. The network announced that it will hold a town hall with the president on Thursday at the same exact time that a town hall with former Vice President Joe Biden will air on ABC News. NBC’s programming decision, critics complained shortly after the network touted it, plays into Trump’s hands.
According to multiple sources familiar with the president's thinking, Trump has told close associates that he wishes to counter-program the Biden town hall and score higher TV viewership numbers, and then use such a contrast in ratings to humiliate his Democratic opponent. Predictably, Trump also wants his 2020 team to make a big deal out of pushing out those numbers, should his hour’s ratings beat Biden’s 90-minute event.
“He looks at this the same way he looks at attendance at his rallies versus the [turnout] Biden gets for his events,” one of these people told The Daily Beast. “He obviously wants to blow Biden out of the water.”
A Trump campaign spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
To Trump aides and veterans, the president’s TV ratings obsession is nothing new, particularly when an election is in full swing. And it’s an obsession of the president’s that has refused to fade even as he has dealt with increasingly dire polling data and a still-raging coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 215,000 Americans.
“In 2013, he had me ask Jon Karl how the ratings were for an ABC interview he did with him, asking if he ‘won the hour,’” said Sam Nunberg, a former political adviser to Trump. “Other times when he would do, for instance, Fox News shows, he would always ask [his executive assistant] Rhona Graff to ask the Fox host or staff if they could send him the exact ratings data of his interview or hit that he had just done. Sometimes he’d just ask them himself. Often, they wouldn’t send him the actual numbers but just transmit back something like, ‘They were fantastic, you won.’ He kept very close track of his ratings and always wanted the numbers so he could tweet them.”
The brazen move to counter-program the previously announced Biden town hall almost immediately sparked backlash against NBC News.
The network’s leadership faced a barrage of condemnation on Wednesday after the last-minute announcement that the broadcast network—along with its sister cable outlets MSNBC, CNBC, and Telemundo, and their digital platforms such as NBC News NOW and the new streaming service Peacock—would air the live event on Thursday night during the same hour as ABC News’ previously scheduled town hall with Biden.
“It’s an irresponsible and selfish move by NBC,” a source close to the Biden campaign texted The Daily Beast. “If they’re going to allow Donald Trump an hour of air time to spread disinformation about COVID and repeat his greatest hits of lies and conspiracy theories, they ought to at least do it an hour later and let voters hear from both candidates. Broadcast networks have a role in our Democratic process, and NBC doesn’t seem to be taking theirs very seriously today.”
Officially, however, the Biden campaign declined to comment on NBC’s programming decision—perhaps not wanting to appear defensive concerning free airtime for Biden’s opponent, who is trailing significantly in public polls less than three weeks before the Nov. 3 election.
On social media, however, NBC’s critics were not so restrained.
“So, @NBCNews is presenting a Trump town hall opposite a Biden town hall? Do I have that right?” tweeted international relations professor David Rothkopf, a typical critic. “They are forcing audiences to choose which candidate to watch? Isn’t that serving Trump’s agenda? Couldn’t they have chosen a different time?”
Prominent journalist Jeff Greenfield—a former ABC and PBS correspondent—was among the many others who weighed in. “The decision by NBC News to run a Trump town hall directly opposite ABC’s Biden town hall is indefensible,” he wrote.
“I’m reminded of Chris Wallace bemoaning the fact that Trump’s shouting meant the American people didn’t get the benefit of hearing from both candidates,” wrote Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review. “@NBCNews apparently has no such view. This is a craven ratings stunt, caving to the Trumpian impulses the network helped hone.”
“Having dueling town halls is bad for democracy-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. #vote,” wrote Katie Couric, who has been an anchor at all three major broadcast networks, including a nearly two-decade stint at NBC News.
Shakina Nayfack, a transgender actress starring in NBC’s new primetime sitcom Connected, was similarly unrestrained, tweeting at her employer: “Shame on @nbc. Y’all sign my checks as of late but I’m disgusted by my home network giving Trump a platform for fear mongering, bigotry & disinformation. Don’t praise yourselves for putting a trans woman on primetime then give a platform to someone who wants to abolish my rights.”
NBC News declined to offer an on-the-record response.
The hour-long Trump event—which is slated to take place in Miami with Today show host Savannah Guthrie moderating—is scheduled for an 8 p.m. start time on the Comcast-owned broadcast and cable outlets, the same time slot Biden’s 90-minute town hall has been allocated on the Disney-owned broadcast network.
ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos—who moderated a Trump town hall just last month—will fill the same role for Thursday’s Biden event in Philadelphia. The dueling events will replace the Commission on Presidential Debates’ official Oct. 15 Biden-Trump showdown, which was canceled wh Trump refused to participate in a virtual debate.
After the president tested positive for COVID-19, the Biden camp indicated the former vice president would only debate Trump virtually so as not to face potential exposure to the dangerous virus. Calling a virtual debate “a waste of time,” Trump bowed out.
In recent weeks, both the Trump and Biden campaigns have had ongoing discussions with major television networks about potential televised events. Immediately after Trump announced that he would not participate in a virtual debate with Biden, the ex-veep’s campaign moved ahead with plans for the televised event with ABC News, and announced it within a matter of hours.
According to NBC insiders, NBC News had a standing offer to both presidential campaigns to hold individual town hall events in the weeks leading up to the election. Biden appeared on NBC News for an event hosted by Lester Holt several days after the first presidential debate. After Biden announced the ABC News town hall following the collapse of a proposed virtual debate, the Trump campaign began discussions with NBC News about its previous offer to host a presidential town hall.
A network source insisted that NBC’s news division, led by Cesar Conde, chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, “determined the format, duration and time slot” of the town hall. The source added that “it follows the exact same format, duration and time slot Joe Biden had on NBC primetime just one week ago.”
“The president did not dictate the time slot,” the NBC source added. “That was determined by the network along with the format, audience and moderator. When ABC announced a two-hour time slot for Biden, it really tied our hands in what we could do programming-wise.”
NBC, of course, has enjoyed a long and at times friendly history with Trump, who starred in 14 seasons of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice—the prime time reality shows that were greenlit by then-network chairman Jeff Zucker, now chief executive of CNN. In recent months, however, Trump has taken to calling NBC’s parent company “Concast,”
his supposedly insulting nickname, much like “MSDNC.”
During the 2016 election, then-Today show host Matt Lauer was heavily criticized for his handling of a town hall-style interview with Trump in which he seemed unprepared for the future president’s aggressive, steamrolling rhetoric and bluster.
Throughout that town hall, which focused on foreign policy and military issues, Trump made a number of false claims and assertions about his views on foreign affairs. Trump insisted that he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq when, in fact, he did voice support for the war initially. Lauer did not press him further on the issue, allowing his claim to go unchecked.
But when the network hosted its town hall interview with Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state faced an intense grilling about her use of a private email server, then one of the top issues for the political press corps. Many of her campaign staff and supporters complained that Lauer had disproportionately focused on the issue, leaving far less time to talk about a number of thorny and complex foreign-policy topics.
Ultimately, in 2020, NBC News’ decision to host a Trump town hall directly opposite the Biden event has not sat well with staff at the news network and its cable-news sister MSNBC.
“Everyone is upset,” one network employee said.