May 23, 2024

At Fox Business Network — for one night, at least — it’s all a lot more than the economy.

When the cable outlet televises a Republican primary debate on September 27, many of the strategies it used the last time it did so are going out the window. Gone are moderators Neil Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo, who have experience with such events. In their place: First-timers Stuart Varney and Dana Perino, alongside Univision’s Ilia Calderón. The network will also move away from its efforts to focus largely on business and economic topics, as it has in the past.

Executives at Fox News Media have begun contemplating when to take more momentous news coverage to a broader audience, says Jay Wallace, president and executive editor of Fox News Media, in an interview. “There are very few events out there anymore,” Wallace says. “People do care about politics,” he adds. “It is a unifying thing for people to watch.”

When Fox Business last televised debates, in 2015 and 2016, TV at large was focused intently on audience niches — business viewers, food enthusiasts or auto hobbyists, for example. In some cases, the industry still is. But in 2023, there are new efforts to generate broader crowds across different types of media. The debate, which airs from 9 p.m. eastern to 11 p.m. eastern from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, will also air across Fox News Channel, Fox News Digital, Fox Nation and Fox News Audio. The first Republican primary debate of this current cycle — also aired across multiple Fox News platforms – drew an average of nearly 13 million, a significant number in the modern TV landscape.

In a sign that Fox News personnel may be thinking about broader audiences, the company opened that last debate, moderated by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, by asking candidates about pop culture, specifically about the message in the viral music hit “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which was trending at the time. Preparations for the next debate haven’t landed on a similar opening at present, says Perino, but “we are going to give a little more thought about how to keep it interesting.”

The moderators are prepared to focus on a broad array of topics, and want to get the candidates to reveal themselves and their policies to an audience that may not know them very well. “We are going to go over all the issues, and that’s what the audience wants,” says Varney, a business-news veteran who has been at Fox since 2004. “It’s not just the economy. That may be the most important issue in the category, but there are other subjects involved here” that could range from crime to the ongoing strike by auto workers. The leading Republican candidate, former President Donald Trump, is not expected to participate

The primary offers all of the attendees the chance “to say ‘why I would be a better Commander-in-Chief” than the current occupant of the White House or the competitor who isn’t there, says Perino.

Both Perino and Varney say they are mindful of the challenge that lies ahead.

“I feel like it is definitely stretching muscles that I don’t normally use or have never used,” says Perino, noting that each day of preparation brings with it new study on topics that are suddenly intrinsic to the news cycle. She often puzzles over how to set up questions for the candidates in just the right way, and then, as new headlines post, must “start all over again.”

But she has some experience that could prove worthwhile. When she worked as White House Press Secretary for President George W. Bush, Perino often had the task of preparing him for press questions. “I’m very good at anticipating questions and coming up with the answers,” she says. “President Bush will tell you he was never surprised by a question when I would brief him.” Now, she adds, she aims to flip the task. “One thing I don’t want to do is ask questions that are so obvious that the candidates can see them coming.”

Varney says “an element of nervousness is inevitable” for such a big event, but “as we get closer and closer, the preparations get more and more intense, and you get more into it.”

Since the last Fox News debate, there has been big internal news as well, with Lachlan Murdoch set to take on the sole chairmanship at parent company Fox Corp. in November, while Rupert Murdoch becomes chairman emeritus. Wallace says he does not expect changes in Fox News operations. “Rupert is Rupert,” says the executive. “He’s around. He’s always fighting the good fight. I don’t really see any changes there. Lachlan has been CEO and has been running the company since the Disney split.”

Executives are not certain viewership for this debate will match that of the previous one, says Wallace. In late September, more sports broadcasts are on the air, and people “are back to school and back to work.” A curious audience will still tune in, he says, and clips from the debate exchanges will bring recognition of the telecast as well. Hearing the candidates discuss the issues may help viewers understand their own responsibilities in the U.S. he says. “People need to vote when November comes along every year.”

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