The second writer’s strike–the one involving CBS News’ writers–just cost the network its first primary debate. The Democratic National Committee has canceled the Dec. 10 affair, which was to take place at CBS studios in Los Angeles, because at least five of the Democratic participants said they wouldn’t cross a WGA picket line.
This is a big loss for CBS News, but not so much for CBS. Here’s why: For CBS News, hosting a debate is about relevance, prestige, and boosting its third-place anchor, Katie Couric. For the network, however, it’s about money, and a low-rated debate would force CBS to punt in the ratings on a night where it is otherwise successful.
CBS News has been a relative non-player in the 2008 campaign thus far. While ABC, NBC/MSNBC, as well as CNN and Fox News, have each hosted multiple debates, CBS News has been left on the political sidelines. The debate, which would have been the first in network primetime, represented a key chance for Katie Couric to establish herself with viewers who might not otherwise watch her.
But by cancelling the debate, CBS saved its affiliates from having to decide whether to carry the debate and live up to their public obligation, or to stick with Two and A Half Men and Rules of Engagement, which get higher numbers than any debate has thus far. It would also be a poor lead-in to ratings king CSI:Miami, and encourage couch potatoes to sample the competition at 10 p.m. CBS affiliates weren’t obligated to carry the debate, and its unclear how many would have opted to do so anyway. Now we’ll never know.