Trump says CNN should pay him $5 million for next debate. Does he have a point?

GOP candidate Donald Trump has gotten flack for his hypothetical demand of $5 million in charitable donations in exchange for his appearance at an upcoming CNN debate. But given the large profits generated by networks airing the debates, could it be a savvy business call?

Branden Camp/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Macon Centreplex, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015, in Macon, Ga.

For Donald Trump to grace CNN and the American public with his presence at the upcoming GOP debate, the cable TV network may very well have to pay $5 million.

Citing the success of debate programming for channels that sponsored earlier GOP debates this year, Mr. Trump suggested to his supporters in Macon, Ga. that he could try to redirect some of those profits. The money, he says, would be donated to charities for veterans.

And this isn’t the first time the GOP frontrunner has made this sort of financial request. But Trump’s perspective on the debates may not be so off-base.

Trump's demand illuminates the shifting role of modern political debates: If TV debates, assumed by many to be for the public good, are driving big advertising revenues for the networks that air them, why shouldn't Trump, who has played a starring role in the debates, get a piece of those profits? Better yet, why shouldn't he get to direct a portion of the money toward the public good?

“How about I tell CNN, who doesn't treat me properly,” Trump asked in his Georgia rally Monday night, “I won't do the debate unless they pay me $5 million. All of which money goes to the Wounded Warriors and the veterans.”

“Seriously!” he added. “I would love to do it.”

The crowd, of course, went wild.

Compared to previous election cycles, debate viewership this year – especially for GOP candidates – is exponentially higher, and all but one debate so far have been aired on paid cable channels. The first Republican debate, aired on the Fox News Channel, averaged 24 million live viewers, breaking a 22-year record for the highest-rated non-sports cable program. The first CNN debate drew a slightly smaller audience, but with more than 23 million viewers, it was still the most-watched program in CNN's history.

The same record-breaking pattern goes for the Democratic debates this year, though to a lesser extreme. CNN’s first Democratic debate brought in 15.3 million viewers, rendering it the highest-rated Democratic debate ever. Even the the least-watched debate so far this year, the Nov. 14 event on CBS, beat every primary debate for the 2012 election, with 8.5 million tuning in.

While the TV networks have yet to disclose their earnings from broadcasting the events, such high ratings point to high advertising revenue. According to Ad Age, CNN charged 40 times its normal advertising rate for a slot during its first GOP debate.

Although the Federal Communications Commission has a smattering of rules regarding equal opportunities for political candidates, it has no jurisdiction over cable TV programming or commercial rates – including programming for the presidential debates.

This means that there are virtually no checks on how much money networks like CNN and Fox – any cable TV channel for that matter – can acquire from the debates. But while the broadcast debates are a major moneymaker for TV news, the political participants themselves have never attempted to take advantage of the process. That is, until Trump.

“One of the things about debates that’s a positive is they’ve always been separate from the whole financial aspect of campaigning,” Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, told The Washington Post.

“This is extortion,” he said, of Trump’s hypothetical demand. “I hope CNN calls his bluff.”

But if media companies can ethically commodify an important part of the American political process, then why can't a candidate?

In a September letter to CNN president Jeff Zucker, Trump justifies his request.

“I do not want money from lobbyists, donors, or special interest groups,” he wrote. “Likewise, you should view the second debate as a public service and not accept the massive profits that this airing will generate.”

Whether he has the public’s best interests at heart or not, Trump’s potential stunt proves one thing clear – that he is a businessman, after all.

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