The next Republican primary debate could put NewsNation on the map

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, left, argues a point with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, right, between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX Business Network and Univision, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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When the candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination meet in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Wednesday, there are likely to be millions of first-time viewers for the network carrying the event.

NewsNation, the cable news channel launched in 2020 by Nexstar Media Group, landed the first national debate in its short history after months of negotiations with the Republican National Committee. The two-hour presentation at 5 p.m. Pacific will also be simulcast on the CW broadcast network, which airs on KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles. (KTLA will also repeat the program at 8 p.m. Pacific).

Read more: NewsNation promised an 'unbiased' alternative to Fox, CNN. What went wrong?

Primary debates, which are doled out by the political parties, are valuable properties that pull in much larger audiences than regular news programming. The first GOP event of the 2024 primary season drew 13 million on Sept. 27 for Fox News, according to Nielsen data — even without the leading candidate former President Donald Trump.

Successive debate audiences tend to decline, but the third candidates meeting shown Nov. 8 on NBC still attracted 7 million, a large number in today's fragmented TV landscape. If NewsNation can draw half that number, it will be a major coup for a network where the highest-rated show, "Cuomo," averages around 150,000 viewers.

Tammy Haddad, a media consultant who produced debates during her time as political director of MSNBC, said the event could be an awareness-raising turning point for the young network.

Read more: Newsom-DeSantis debate draws 4.75 million viewers on Fox News

"Hosting a presidential debate has traditionally brought a lot of attention to a channel," Haddad said. "It's a real opportunity for them to put them on equal footing with the other networks when it comes to politics."

NewsNation has survived a rocky rollout. Nexstar launched the channel in 2020 near the end of the polarizing Trump administration, a period when the cable audience became divided into political tribes.

Conservatives gravitated to Fox News while liberals aligned with CNN and MSNBC, especially in prime time when provocative commentators draw the largest audiences.

Nexstar executives promised NewsNation would be an unbiased alternative to the established networks.

But the mission statement was questioned early on when staffers learned that Bill Shine, a former top executive at Fox News who became collateral damage in the sexual harassment scandal that brought down Roger Ailes, was serving as a consultant (he still does).

A poorly received soft interview with then President Trump also raised suspicions that the network was courting conservative viewers, rather than being a down-the-middle entity. Top managers at the start-up, who came out of local news, left eight months after the launch.

There were other obstacles as well. NewsNation took over the channel position occupied by WGN America and still carried entertainment shows acquired by its previous owner Tribune Media.

The entertainment shows are now gone from the weekday lineup and NewsNation will have news 24/7 by the end of summer 2024.

Nexstar bosses remained patient and pressed ahead with investing in the channel despite the inevitable decline of the cable business, which is seeing millions of consumers cutting the pay TV cord every year.

The company tapped Michael Corn, who ran the top-rated "Good Morning America," as NewsNation's president. He has hired correspondents, producers and executives from a wide range of outlets including CBS, ABC, Fox News and CNN, and will be adding more as it expands its weekend programming.

The Chicago-based network has built new studios in New York and Washington. Nexstar acquired the Hill, a popular political site, and has developed it into a daily Beltway-based TV program that can also be heard on SiriusXM radio.

The network also beefed up its Washington coverage with the hiring of Chris Stirewalt as its political director. (Stirewalt was dismissed from Fox News after the outlet faced viewer backlash over its early call of Arizona for then-candidate Joe Biden on the night of the 2020 presidential election).

The prime-time lineup was revamped with the addition of Chris Cuomo. Though he was ousted from CNN over his involvement in helping his brother Andrew, the former New York governor, navigate a sexual harassment scandal, Cuomo has a strong enough following to give the network an appointment show in prime time.

Read more: Megyn Kelly will be a moderator at next GOP primary debate for Nexstar's NewsNation

The network also added former "ABC World News Tonight" anchor Elizabeth Vargas, who will be one of the debate moderators alongside Sirius XM radio and podcast host Megyn Kelly, who was brought on by the Republican National Committee; and Eliana Johnson, editor in chief of the Washington Free Beacon.

Ratings have remained modest at NewsNation compared with the established competition at Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, but the network has seen year-to-year growth.

In October, NewsNation averaged 118,000 viewers in prime time, up 23%, compared to 1.8 million viewers for Fox News. The network's strongest ratings market is Los Angeles.

Nexstar does not break out the financial data for NewsNation, but its executives have told Wall Street analysts that the channel has been profitable since its launch.

Cable and satellite TV operators have paid for the channel since day one, unusual for a newly-launched service. Nexstar is the largest owner of TV stations in the U.S., including network affiliates that carry NFL football, which provides strong leverage in negotiating carriage fees.

NewsNation also doesn't have the legacy costs that are built into network news divisions, which still pay multimillion salaries for top anchors despite a steady decline in viewership.

"They have layers and layers of management and departments that have built up over the years," Corn said in a recent interview. "We built this place from the ground up and we built it smart. There's just not a lot of waste."

As for fulfilling its mission to be more neutral than its established competitors, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, Nexstar has cited several independent sources that monitor the political lean of journalism organizations. One of the firms, Ad Fontes, publishes a media bias chart that puts NewsNation squarely in the center. NewsGuard, an independent journalism and technology tool, also gave high scores to NewsNation for credibility and transparency.

"We cover all sides of issues and try to do it fairly," said Corn. "When people become aware of what we're doing every day they're going to be really impressed."

Nextstar has been touting the recognition of NewsNation as a centrist outlet to advertisers, who have become increasingly skittish about running their commercials in politically polarizing news programs.

NewsNation — which goes by the slogan of "News for All America" — has also tried to distinguish itself by devoting more time to stories outside of Washington such as the chemical train explosion in Palestine, Ohio; and the ongoing investigation into actor Alec Baldwin's accidental shooting of Halyna Hutchins on the movie set of "Rust."

But a successful debate is a sure way to get attention from a national audience.

Vargas said in an interview last week that she intends to get the participating candidates — entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor — to focus more on Trump, who has not participated in any of the events so far but continues to lead his competitors in the polls by a wide margin. (Trump is bypassing the Wednesday event too, although he will be accommodated in the unlikely event he changes his mind.)

"Right now they are running against Trump," Vargas said. "So there will be many questions about him."

Haddad said she expects NewsNation's event should have high production standards as its executives and producers have experience in putting on previous debates.

"The question is will it change the trajectory of their audience and business," Haddad added.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.