Money changes everything in TV debates

Game changer: Trump understands that candidates are the talent making all that money for cable channels.

With the news that the RNC has decided to punish NBC for the sorry excuse of a debate CNBC staged Wednesday, it's time for everyone to stop, take a deep breath and try to remember what these debates are supposed to be about.

I understand the Republican National Committee's outrage over CNBC and its desire to retaliate by suspending its agreement with NBC to do another debate in February. But what's the larger goal of these debates anyway?

Are they about making money for giant media corporations, enhancing one party's image at the expense of the other, or trying to give citizens information about the men and women who want to be president of the United States?

The last one seems kind of important in a democracy -- especially during as anxious and troubled a time as the one in which we now find ourselves.

But, hey, when do citizens and their futures count for anything any more when big money is involved?

After years of criticizing the networks and cable channels for not making a better commitment to covering presidential politics, I was delighted when Fox News drew an astronomical 24 million viewers in August for the first GOP debate, which, by the way, was a gem in staging and the professionalism of its moderators compared to CNBC.

But even as I was typing the post with the news of the big ratings for Fox, I started worrying if money would change everything in these debates as it often does elsewhere in life. Suddenly, what had been seen by the TV industry as a public-service burden was a cash cow with ads selling for $250,000 for 30 seconds.

The networks and channels couldn't tell me the debates and presidential coverage were a money-losing proposition any more. But that kind of money always makes people in politics and media act crazier than usual.

And then, along comes CNBC Wednesday with a debate that they can't even manage to start on time, shaped by rules they never thought through or bothered to articulate, resulting in two hours of confusion, noise and chaos.

The cherry on this sundae of TV misery was the trio of moderators that is still being righteously pounded by the press two days after the event. (Read my review here to see why.)

And now, all hell is breaking loose on the debate front.

In his letter to NBC suspending their agreement today, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wrote:

"While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of 'gotcha' questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas."

That's a short bit of what he wrote, but I agree with most of what he says. After decades of covering these events, I have never seen a debate veer further off the course of serving democracy.

But even as Priebus and the GOP leadership weigh the future of TV debates, the candidates are meeting separately to decide where they want them to go.

This is a big deal.

Donald Trump, not surprisingly, was the first to see the debates as a powerful TV franchise after the Fox event. And he understood that he and some of the candidates were the talent helping make it so valuable. And in TV, you take care of talent or you lose money when it walks.

Trump and Ben Carson threatened to boycott CNBC's debate if it wasn't cut down to two hours in length -- and that's the length at which it ran.

What will Trump and his fellow candidates demand next before letting another network make $250,000 for 30-second spots? That's a lot of money for a cable channel. Will they demand selection of the moderators, some setting of parameters on questions?

Follow that money as these discussions about the future of the debates play out in coming days.

Somehow I don't think serving citizens stands a chance of coming in first in this contest -- not with that much money on the table.

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