CNN stands to make millions from the Trump-Biden debate, but its rivals could make even more

  • Thursday's presidential debate will feature commercials for the very first time

  • Struggling with ratings, CNN is banking on the event to draw in viewers and millions in revenue

  • Rival networks can air the live broadcast and run their own ads, setting them up to outperform CNN

Faced with lagging viewership, CNN is anticipating that Thursday's presidential debate will rake in huge sums. Yet other networks are allowed to air the live broadcast of the showdown, setting them up to outperform CNN at its own game.

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump's uncharacteristically early face-off is notable for various reasons, namely the two commercial breaks that will splice up the 90-minute debate. Presidential debates have historically been ad-free, but CNN is offering two tiers of advertising this year, with the most robust package costing a minimum of $1.5 million, sources told Semafor.

Though CNN is hosting and moderating the debate from its studios in Atlanta, other networks can sell their own advertisements during their simulcasts. Given that some of those networks, like Fox News and MSNBC, typically have a larger primetime audience than CNN, they may be able to sell advertising slots for more money, Variety reports.

Per CNN's rules, networks cannot plug commercial breaks with commentary from their own on-air personalities and must keep the CNN logo visible.

A CNN spokesperson told Business Insider that the network is making the debate available across a variety of platforms in an effort to reach as many people as possible, and a representative for Fox News pointed to the network's press release about its coverage. Other networks did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment.

With cable news channels like CNN facing questions about their futures, the presidential election serves as a potential opportunity to boost viewership. As Semafor notes, the election so far hasn't generated the same level of attention as recent races, but debates — especially the early ones — historically generate high ratings.

Clea Conner, the CEO of Open to Debate, a nonpartisan organization, told Politico that the decision to air advertisements is "shameful" and likened the event to reality television.

"Even though there will be only two commercial breaks this time, once we deem them acceptable it's a classic slippery slope," she told Politico. "How many will there be next time, and the time after that?

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