First there was “Hockey Night in Canada.” Then there was “Football Night in America.”
Get ready, Savannah, for “Debate Night in America.”
This Friday, Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, face off in a much anticipated, one-hour debate in front of a live, by-invitation-only audience at the JW Marriott at Savannah’s Plant Riverside.
The hosts of the debate, the Irving, Texas-based Nexstar Media Group and its local affiliate, WSAV-TV, say at least 10 million viewers across Georgia will have access to the broadcast, which will air on five Nexstar television stations serving the state and elsewhere.
The forum in Savannah is likely to be the only face-to-face encounter between the two candidates in a race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
But if either candidate was expecting the debate to be a raucous affair, they’re wrong. The rules of decorum are strict. Audience members, which include many prominent Savannahians, won’t be permitted to make noise, cheer, or display campaign paraphernalia.
On stage, meanwhile, the two candidates will know the topics in advance but they won’t be told beforehand the specific questions, which will be posed by WSAV-TV’s Tina Tyus-Shaw and WAGA-TV’s Buck Lanford.
The event will culminate months of cat-and-mouse between the two candidates and their operatives, which has been covered avidly by the political press.
But it will also cap a quieter, but no less intense pursuit, of for-profit media companies, non-profit news and public interest organizations in Georgia to host the encounter. The winner — Nextstar, which owns WSAV and bills itself as America’s largest local television and media company — is using the debate as part of a multistate campaign to brand its subscription news station.
Warnock accepts early invitation
In May, Warnock accepted invitations for three debates with Walker: one hosted by Savannah’s WTOC-TV; another hosted by the Atlanta Press Club; and still another hosted by Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism in Macon. They represented the traditional demarcation of the state of east, middle and coastal Georgia.
WTOC, a CBS affiliate, is owned by Gray Television, an Atlanta-based company that owns or operates stations in 113 television markets that collectively reach 36% of U.S. television households, according to its website. It reported $2.4 billion in revenue in 2021.
Then came more than two months of posturing and political trash-talking by both candidates — including Walker’s challenge to Warnock to “get his big boy pants on” and debate him. Yet Walker never committed to an actual date and place.
In early August, Walker finally announced during an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity that he had accepted an invitation to debate Warnock. It wasn’t, however, one of the three invitations Warnock had accepted earlier.
It came instead from Nexstar Media Group, Inc., which owns three television stations in the state, including WSAV-TV, an NBC affiliate, in Savannah.
Nexstar Media Group describes itself as America’s largest local television and media company with 200 broadcast stations (including partner stations) in 116 markets that encompass more than 68% of U.S. television households. It reported $4.65 billion in revenue in 2021.
How and when Nexstar began pursuing the Walker-Warnock debate is unclear. The Walker campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment. WSAV’s station manager, Dave Hart, referred all queries to a spokesman at Nexstar’s corporate headquarters in Texas.
‘Giving the candidates the topics . . . may have been a factor’
Larry Silbermann, WTOC’s vice president and general manager, isn’t certain how his station was edged out in the race to host the debate.
“It’s been reported that one of the things they – Nexstar – was willing to do that we weren’t was to give the candidates the topics ahead of the debate. That may have been a factor. Beyond that, I don’t know,” he said.
Debbie Blankenship, director of Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism, confirmed that Warnock and Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver had agreed to participate in an Oct. 13 debate on Mercer’s campus. Walker hasn’t responded to the invitation, she said.
Asked in an email how Nexstar’s debate invitation to Walker came about, Gary Weitman, an executive vice president and chief communications officer for Nexstar, didn’t comment.
More than a month passed before Warnock agreed to the Nexstar- and WSAV-hosted debate with Walker in Savannah, provided that the Republican candidate accept one of the other debates to which he agreed.
As of today, however, there’s no indication any other debate between the two frontrunners will occur.
The Warnock and Walker campaigns did not reply to requests for comment. Lauri Strauss, a consultant for the Atlanta Press Club, said the invitation to debate Warnock and Oliver this Sunday evening in Atlanta still stands. Blankenship has canceled the Macon debate.
Pulling out the stops
Nexstar is pulling out the stops for the political extravaganza. But after winning what appears likely to be the only debate between Walker and Warnock, it has also struggled behind-the-scenes to establish a workable format.
Also, after saying the debate would be open to the public — a Walker demand — Nexstar said it would be a by-invitation-only event.
In a three-page proposal that lays out in meticulous detail the organization and format for the debate, Nexstar added that the topics to be covered in the debate, but not the questions, would be shared with the candidates beforehand. Warnock had opposed that.
Asked for details about the negotiations over the debate format and whether Nexstar stipulated that its Walker-Warnock debate would be the only debate between the two candidates, Weitman said, “Both the Warnock and Walker campaigns agreed to the format for the upcoming debates.”
The debate will be profitable, at least for some.
As of Oct 6, suites at the JW Marriott at Plant Riverside were almost fully booked. Those remaining were running at $1,369/night and $969/night on Friday, Oct. 14. At the nearby Bohemian, rooms were priced at $969/night.
But both the winning and losing media companies play down the role of money as a motive to host candidate debates.
“I can assure you, there’s no money to be made on the debate and a lot of expense to be had in producing it. You don’t do it because it’s good business. And frankly, half your viewers are going to think you’re slanted one way and the other half are going to think you’re slanted the other way,” said Silbermann, WTOC’s station manager.
Nexstar says no ad time is being sold for the Walker-Warnock encounter. The company, however, has doubled down its effort to brand its NewsNation subscription network. At the end of September, its stations covered the debate in Texas between incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott and his Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke.
From Savannah, NewsNation and “Debate Night in America” will move on to Pennsylvania, where it will air a debate on Oct. 25 between Senate candidates John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz.
The company is sending George Will and Chris Stirewalt to Savannah this week to host a pre- and post-debate show airing on the network. In a news release, Nexstar said its multimarket live broadcast of this Friday’s one-hour debate will air on four Nexstar television stations serving the state besides WSAV, including: WRBL-TV(CBS) in Columbus, WJBF-TV (ABC) in Augusta, WSPA (CBS) in Spartanburg, SC and WDHN (ABC) in Dothan, AL.
It also said the debate will air on partner stations serving viewers in Georgia: WAGA-TV (FOX) in Atlanta, WGXA- TV (ABC) in Macon, WTGS-TV (FOX) in Savannah, WTVC (ABC) in Chattanooga, TN, and WTWC (NBC) in Tallahassee, FL. Viewers may also access a livestream of the debate online by visiting the website of their local Nexstar station, it added.
No sour grapes
Victor Pickard, a professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, is skeptical about the media circus that will engulf Savannah.
“Much of our political journalism in the United States takes the form of media spectacles, which are less focused on informing members of a democratic society and more interested in entertaining audiences,” Pickard said. “This relationship with the public too often treats people as consumers within a media market instead of citizens of a polity.”
Still, Pickard isn’t ready to scrap candidate debates altogether.
“These televised debates are important events that, at their best, can reveal key policy differences and implications among candidates who are vying for elected office.”
As for WTOC’s Silbermann, there are no sour grapes.
“I congratulate Dave Hart and his team over there [at WSAV] and wish them well. I’ll be watching it because like everyone else, I’m a voter.”