Cord cutters cut off from presidential debates

Americans aren't watching TV the way they used to. Cable companies and the two parties are adapting only slowly, if at all.

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Among the Republican hopefuls at the CNBC debate in Boulder, Colorado, were (from left) former Gov. Jeb Bush, US Sen. Marco Rubio, businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Rick Wilking/Reuters/Corbis

Are you a cord cutter hoping to watch the presidential debates? Too bad.

Of the first three debates among the candidates running for president of the United States, only one was accessible outside a cable subscription.

Take the debate among the Republican presidential wannabes on October 28 in Boulder, Colorado. It was carried on CNBC, which could only be viewed live with a cable subscription.

So, cord cutters, a group typified by millennials who have eschewed cable subscriptions and instead watch television and movies available on the Internet, were cut out.

Who watched the debate? An estimated 73 percent of CNBC's viewers were over the age of 50, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That could be a problem for the GOP as much as for American democracy, since voters historically rank televised debates as the single most important factor in their choice of president.

"What you have is a two-tier electorate," said Peter Hart, founder of polling firm Hart Research Associates. "Those who have special access and those who don't."

So far this year, there have been three debates among Republicans and one with the Democratic hopefuls, and all have been on one of a trio of cable networks: CNBC, CNN or Fox News. That means few of the one in four US households without satellite or cable saw candidates' gaffes, comebacks and weird put-downs that light up social media in real time.

True, CNN did make its first two debates available free online. Fox News, however, went so far as to shut down British broadcaster Sky News' attempt to make the August 6 Republican debate available free on YouTube.

Cord cutters' dilemma

So why aren't young adults subscribing to cable in the first place?

Cost has something to do with it. Nationwide, the price of the most basic cable package was almost $23 a month in January 2013, a nearly 88 percent spike from 1998 costs. That's faster than the rate of inflation, according to a 2014 report by the Federal Communications Commission. (And by the way, a basic cable package doesn't guarantee access to channels that have broadcast the debates.)

Another reason cord cutting is on the rise is that we don't need satellite or cable to watch TV anymore, what with options like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV and Roku.

Who's cutting the cord matters, said Forrester media analyst James McQuivey. New households choosing to forgo cable access aren't the elderly or rural poor, with little access to information. Rather, they're younger and more urban.

"None of those people will 'miss out' on the debates the way the older non-cable homes would, because they're going to get all the coverage of the debates they might want from Twitter, Facebook and so on," he said.

And they have. Facebook counted more than a billion posts related to the upcoming election, made by some 68 million users, said Jodi Seth, a spokeswoman for the social network. That means Facebook users have engaged in some sort of election-related content on average more than 16 times this year.

Still, people have been complaining about being unable to watch the debates live on YouTube.

Hart's polling has found that 55 percent of all Americans and 69 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds support streaming the debates over the Internet at the same time they're live on television. Citing Hart's research, scholars from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania recommend "providing full access to debate content on a flat, universal feed."

To be sure, cord cutters may be able to watch pirate live streams or, if they're patient, YouTube videos shown at a later date.

Fox, Fox Business Channel (which will host the next debate), CNBC, CNN and the Republican and Democratic parties did not respond to requests for comment.

New signals

Still, there's a sign that the old media companies might be adjusting their access.

Thursday, Fox Business Channel announced that the Republican debate airing Tuesday from Milwaukee, Wisconsin would be slightly more available than the debates on Fox News and CNBC were. The network said it would allow households with cable or satellite subscriptions access to the debate, even if they didn't specifically subscribe to Fox Business to watch the debate.

Then on Monday afternoon, following publication of this article, the cable business network said the debate on Tuesday would be live-streamed for free on FoxBusiness.com, available to anyone with an internet connection -- and the patience to watch one more debate, of course.

Maybe, just maybe, this next debate will be watched by people younger than 50.

Updated at 1:02 PM: Adds Fox Business' decision to make its Tuesday night debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin free online to non-subscribers.