CNN and ABC Snag the TV Coups of the Year

All of a sudden on Wednesday morning, the TV booking of the year was up for grabs.

Since 1987, presidential debates have been simulcast on every major channel in the country. But President Biden’s shock announcement that he would skip this fall’s preplanned matchups in favor of debates sponsored by individual news outlets sent network executives into a scramble.

Such debates typically take months to plan. Instead, in three hours, CNN and ABC News outmaneuvered their rivals to land a pair of prime-time face-offs between Mr. Biden and former President Donald J. Trump that promise enormous ratings and prestige.

Given the circumstances, some improvisation was involved.

CNN’s chairman, Mark Thompson, was backstage at Madison Square Garden, about to deliver a crucial presentation to network advertisers. He began rewriting his remarks after aides confirmed over the phone that both candidates had agreed to a CNN debate on June 27. Mr. Thompson took out his reading glasses to deliver the announcement onstage, reading from a script scrawled across a creased notecard.

Debra OConnell, the head of ABC News, was deep into an annual meeting with regional affiliates when word came in. Because her network also airs major sports and entertainment events, her team had to coordinate with executives at Disney, ABC’s parent company, to find a free night on the schedule. Soon after, ABC announced a Sept. 10 debate.

Details about the events are still coming together.

The anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate the CNN debate, which is set to air at 9 p.m. Eastern. ABC has not yet selected its moderators. ABC will share the September debate with other broadcast and streaming news networks to simulcast; CNN has only said its debate will air on its own platforms.

Mr. Trump said on Wednesday that he would also appear on Fox News for a debate in October, but the Biden campaign quickly made clear that its candidate would not participate.

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