Before CNN, CBS News or ABC News can snare one of the series of Republican primary debates taking place in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, another news outlet will have its turn.
NewsNation, the upstart cable-news property launched by Nexstar Media in March of 2021, will team up with SiriusXM Radio and the conservative political outlet Washington Free Beacon on December 6 to broadcast the event, the fourth backed by the Republican National Committee following debates telecast by Fox News Media networks and NBC News. The media companies have enlisted NewsNation anchor Elizabeth Vargas; the outspoken host Megyn Kelly, whose “The Megyn Kelly Show” is simulcast on SiriusXM and who is known best from her time at Fox News Channel and NBC News; and Free Beacon journalist Eliana Johnson to moderate the affair. 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 will offer a live audio stream of the debate.
The event will take place at the University of Alabama, located in Tuscaloosa.
Viewers will “see us do this in a manner that is not filled with ‘gotcha’ or talking points,” says Sean Compton, president of networks for Nexstar, in an interview, adding: “I think this is another opportunity to give us a boost and help create more awareness and conversation around the network. Once people find us, hopefully we can redirect them to become longer-term viewers and fans of the channel.”
To be certain, NewsNation’s audience remains small compared to those of Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN. The network’s most-watched program, Chris Cuomo’s 8 p.m. primetime hour, has an average audience of 28,000 among the viewers most sought after by advertisers, people between 25 and 54. The show reached an average total audience of 154,000 in the most recent month. But Nexstar’s Compton points out that NewsNation’s audience is on the rise. In October, the network’s overall audience was up 23% year over year, and up 38% among viewers between 25 and 54.
Rather than compare viewership with rivals’ current audiences, Compton says he looks more at how Fox News and MSNBC did in their earliest years. He says NewsNation is following a similar trend, starting small but growing gradually. “We will be caught up with them sooner rather than later,” he says, noting the network has quadrupled the audience levels it has won since its 2021 launch. Still, it may take several years for NewsNation to become more competitive, he notes, while pointing out that news networks tend to get an audience boost in the year leading up to a presidential election.
Winning a Republican debate at this stage of its existence represents a coup for an outlet of NewsNation’s size. To get the event, executives traveled with Vargas to Washington, D.C. to meet with representatives of the Republican National Committee, which determines which media organizations are affiliated with the debates. She accompanied Michael Corn, president of news for NewsNation, and Cherie Grzech, senior vice president of news and politics. The group played up Grzech’s experience helping to produce Republican debates for Fox News Channel, where she once worked as a senior executive in the network’s Washington bureau.
But the process took months, Compton acknowledges. He hoped the RNC would have seen town-hall events NewsNation has hosted with Republican candidates Vivek Ramaswamy and former Vice President Mike Pence, and even fringe Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy, Jr. He says NewsNetwork strives to be centrist, which may have it spending more time on stories that rivals drop, such as the aftermath of a train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, that released chemicals into the surrounding environment. “Even our talk programming is fair,” he says. Hosts may have opinions, but “it’s all done with respect. It’s not a shouting match like you have become used to and other networks.” He urges those who may be skeptical to “watch our programs and judge for yourself.”
The event will bring Megyn Kelly back to mainstream news following her exit from NBC in 2019. She is no stranger to debates, having co-moderated five GOP primary debates for Fox News. One, the first of the 2016 election cycle, featured her squaring off against then-candidate Donald Trump. It was watched by 24 million viewers, and remains the most watched Presidential primary debate in history.
There has been speculation in the recent past that NewsNation and Kelly might be in discussions about a possible role. “We are always looking at talent opportunities,” says Compton, who declined to comment on any discussions the network might have had with Kelly and her representatives. “I’m much better off at being my own boss and running my own show,” Kelly told Variety in September. Compton says Kelly and Vargas have already had a phone conversation to discuss the debate.
And then there is the question of whether former President Donald Trump will participate. Trump, who has long been the front-runner among Republican presidential candidates, has avoided all primary debates so far. “Of course, he’s invited,” says Compton.