Nexstar Keeps Some High-Profile Debates Exclusive

Tim Ryan debates J.D. Vance at Nexstar's WJW-TV in Cleveland
WJW Cleveland’s debate between U.S. Senate candidates Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and J.D. Vance aired on Nexstar-owned NewsNation. (Image credit: Nexstar Media)

Not among C-SPAN’s dozens of debate streams and cablecasts over the past few weeks, though not for lack of trying, were arguably the highest-profile political debates in the land: Those between Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Republican challenger Herschel Walker and between Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz and Democratic Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is battling back from a stroke.

Those races are among a handful of close contests that will most likely determine whether Republicans control both houses of the U.S. Congress. Thus, C-SPAN was eager to add them to the roster of debates from local broadcasters it gets permission to present to its nationwide audience. 

Both of those debates were produced and broadcast on stations owned by Nexstar Media Group. C-SPAN said, and Nexstar confirmed, that the cable-industry-supported public affairs network was denied permission to carry them.

It turns out many of those Nexstar debates did get national cable distribution via Nexstar's co-owned cable-news network, NewsNation.

C-SPAN executives say more and more sponsoring organizations — whether journalistic or political — are making debates exclusive this election cycle, and there are fewer debates to choose from.

Broadcasters generally still work with C-SPAN to allow coverage, said C-SPAN political director Nate Hurst, who is repsonsible for lining up debate permission. That group included Nexstar earlier this year with an Ohio Republican primary debate for U.S. Senate, one Hurst called a great debate that was well-structured and well-moderated. He would not speculate on why Nexstar declined to give its permission for the recent debates.

Hurst said there were perhaps a dozen to 15 broadcaster debates this cycle — mostly Nexstar-hosted — that C-SPAN was unable to get permission to carry. That is compared to the 80 or so it did carry, most of which (about 90%, said Hurst) were broadcaster-hosted.

“These debates are produced by Nexstar’s local stations and require a considerable investment of time, effort and expense,” Nexstar executive VP and chief communications officer Gary Weitman said. “The debates are carried by the local Nexstar stations serving the state and many are carried nationally by our cable news network, NewsNation.”

In a world of intense competition, Nexstar is looking for a return on its investment in such important public-interest programming. “When NewsNation carries a debate nationally, we want viewers to tune in to watch the exclusive telecast on NewsNation, which is available in 70 million television homes across the U.S.,” Weitman said.

Nexstar’s desire for exclusivity notwithstanding, C-SPAN said it continues to have “wonderful relationships with broadcasters” overall. “[Broadcasters] have been incredibly generous in letting us take their debates,” Hurst said. C-SPAN, in turn, makes the debates available online free to non-cable subscribers.

While the draw of exclusive content debate hosts is one factor in C-SPAN's drop in the number of debates carried this election cycle — from 120-140 in previous election cycles to about 80 — there is another reason, Hurst said.

“There are just a lot of candidates who aren't debating, or only one debate [as was the case with Fetterman-Oz and Warnock-Walker], which is highly unusual,” he said.

Michigan debate on C-SPAN

C-SPAN is breaking with past practice by encouraging local stations to include their branding on the feeds of local debates it airs, including one for Michigan’s governor.  (Image credit: C-SPAN)

Under Hurst, C-SPAN has been trying to sweeten the pot by giving a national platform to the local broadcast sponsor’s branding. “We used to seek really clean video so we could put our own graphics on them, but I think [showing their branding] is more fair to our broadcast partners who put a lot of money into them and are doing the really heavy lifting,” he said. “So, for example, a debate in Michigan we asked for a feed that has all their logos on it and social media handles.”

Hurst said he believes C-SPAN should always give credit where credit is due. ▪️

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.