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Republicans, Nexstar, Megyn Kelly All Have Stake in NewsNation Debate

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Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis and the rest of the Republican field of presidential candidates aren’t the only ones who have something riding on the GOP’s next primary debate.

The event will be telecast Wednesday between 8 and 10 p.m. eastern from the University of Alabama by the upstart cable-news outlet NewsNation, and has the potential to affect more than just votes and donations.

Nexstar Media, the network’s corporate owner, hopes the special broadcast will woo new viewers to its recently assembled collection of media outlets, which also includes the CW. Megyn Kelly, the one-time Fox News firebrand who will be co-moderating the debate with NewsNation’s Elizabeth Vargas and Eliana Johnson of The Washington Free Beacon , will get a new crack at exposure to mainstream news audiences. And the Republican National Committee, which has placed the bulk of its primary events on outlets owned by Fox Corp., is likely watching to see if NewsNation’s efforts will offer up a viable alternative to reach voters.

“We are ready for primetime and we are ready for people to check us out,” says Michael Corn, the network’s president of news during an interview, adding: “This is our Super Bowl.”

Indeed, the telecast could lure a bigger audience than NewsNation has ever seen. While the network is seeing increases in viewership, it lags well behind rivals Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC. NewsNation’s most-watched program, Chris Cuomo’s weeknight hour at 8 p.m. drew an average of 141,000 for the 12-month period ended November 28, according to data from Nielsen.

In contrast, a Republican debate telecast by NBCUniversal last month drew 7.51 million viewers, down from the 12.8 million and 9.5 million who watched a first and second RNC debate on Fox News Channel in August and Fox Business Network in September. Recent trends suggest the NewsNation debate will lure a smaller crowd –- but still one that is bigger than usual for the fledgling operation.

Those who tune in may see a more thorough vetting of the candidates, says Vargas, who anchors a weekday evening-news program for NewsNation. “The field has narrowed down,” she says of the remaining candidates. “It gives us a real opportunity to get a lot more specific for this. Can we get them off their talking points, ask ‘How would you do that?’ “What does that mean?’”

Vargas has not worked with Kelly or Johnson directly, but the trio have been talking with producers “and strategizing about how to get these candidates not just to get into more specifics, but to actually debate each other,” she says, instead of shouting out canned phrases and positions.

Kelly’s NewsNation appearance will mark one of her first on a mainstream news outlet in an anchoring capacity in quite some time. After leaving Fox News in 2017 for a much-scrutinized stint at NBC News, she has worked on her own podcast – simulcast on SiriusXM – largely full time, making occasional commentator appearances on media outlets such as Newsmax. She told Variety in September that she remains an independent, but finds herself aligned with the right on many cultural issues. She also said that she does not see herself returning to TV on a regular basis.

The debate could lend NewsNation a boost in time for a business opportunity. All the cable-news outlets are expected to see subscribers decline in 2024, according to projections from Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. But the run-up to next year’s presidential election is seen bringing new ad dollars. NewsNation’s subscriber base is seen falling to 62.6 million next year, according to Kagan, compared to a projection of 67.5 million for 2023. Ad dollars, however, are estimated to reach $74.8 million next year, compared with $73.9 million this year.

Nexstar plans to showcase as much of its portfolio as possible. The debate will be simulcast on the CW, the broadcast network Nexstar acquired in 2022, in the eastern and central time zones, with stations in the western U.S. offering a rebroadcast. SiriusXM, which streams Kelly’s regular show, will offer a live audio stream of the debate. On the day of the event, most of the NewsNation anchors will hold forth from Alabama. Cuomo and chief Washinton anchor Leland Vittert will lead a two-hour news special ahead of the debate broadcast as well as a post-event analysis program.

Former President Trump is not expected to attend. He has yet to take part in this cycle of primaries. But he is bound to come up, says Vargas. “We will definitely be asking questions about Donald Trump,” she says. “I think that is something that will be different in this debate.”

NewsNation’s Corn thinks the trio of moderators will be able to push the candidates to get real. “I’m not really worked about what we know is shtick,” he says. “We are there for substance. That’s the hope for the night.” And, no doubt, for some new visitors to NewsNation to stick around a little longer.

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