CNN is hoping Thursday's highly anticipated Biden-Trump debate will become a stature-building moment at a time when the cable news stalwart needs a win.

When a worldwide audience settles in to watch the two presumptive 2024 presidential nominees, viewers will see the CNN logo and its two signature political anchors, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, moderating the proceedings. The audience for the telecast, including viewers of rival networks that have agreed to carry CNN's feed, is likely to exceed the 73 million that watched the first face-off between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in 2020.

The high-stakes event represents a chance for the network to reestablish its strengths in the minds of consumers who have gone elsewhere for their news. Management changes, talent firings and a shift away from traditional TV viewing have put CNN through the ringer in recent years. The Warner Bros. Discovery-owned channel's U.S. audience has declined 24% since 2022, according to Nielsen.

"They need to remind viewers of the crucial role they play in this process as being a trusted source of reliable information," said Jon Klein, a former CNN president who's now a digital media entrepreneur. "This is an opportunity with two premier talents in Dana and Jake, who are pros at this.... It's an opportunity to showcase what CNN does best."

Securing the first debate of the 2024 general election cycle was a coup for CNN. No single outlet has ever been featured during the general election candidate showdowns since they began in 1960. Since 1988, the venues, moderators and rules were set by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

But the campaigns bypassed the commission this year and CNN will be in the driver's seat when President Biden faces off against former President Trump in the network's Atlanta studios.

The debate will look and sound different from past match-ups. Rather than standing onstage at a university, Biden and Trump will be in a TV studio, playing only to the cameras and the viewers watching at home. There will be no cheering crowds.

CNN is also planning to cut the microphones of the candidates once their allotted speaking time is over. Trump frequently interrupted Biden during their first 2020 debate, which many pundits believe hurt the former president's performance.

David Chalian, political director for CNN, believes the network's long history of staging primary debates and town halls made it a viable platform for the candidates, who don't agree on much else.

"You would have to ask the campaigns, but I would argue that our track record and expertise in doing these kinds of high-profile political events gave them comfort," Chalian said.

Still, CNN and its journalists have come in for partisan attacks ahead of the big night.

Tapper and Bash have already become social media piñatas this week, with Trump acolytes claiming that the Republican won't get a fair shake. Tapper's past critiques of the Trump presidency and his contentious exchanges with the former president's aides have been shared online by Republicans.

The sniping comes with the territory as news consumers increasingly seek out sources that align with their own political beliefs. Chalian said Tapper, Bash and the rest of the network's crew are capable of shutting out the distractions that are now part of the volatile political landscape.

"I think everything else is separate and apart from the mission on Thursday night, which is to make sure that the American voters hear directly from these two candidates about the issues that matter most to them," Chalian said.

Fox News is among the conservative networks simulcasting the debate and has dutifully run the CNN logo in its on-air promotion of the event. But that has not stopped its commentators from accusing the moderators of bias against Trump and calling the outlet "fake news CNN."

"They claim to be journalists," Fox News host Sean Hannity said of Tapper and Bash on his Monday program. "They are not. ... Look, I hope I'm wrong, but this debate will likely be three on one."

Trump surrogates are experts at flooding the zone with coordinated talking points, and the attacks on Tapper have even spilled onto CNN's air. Trump spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt was cut short Monday during a CNN appearance after she accused Tapper of bias against the Republican. "CNN This Morning" anchor Kasie Hunt defended her colleague and ended the interview.

A clip of the testy exchange became fodder for the rest of the day on conservative outlets promoting the idea that Trump was heading into hostile territory.

After the dust-up, CNN released a statement of support for Tapper and Bash. "They have extensive experience moderating major political debates, including CNN's Republican Presidential Primary Debate this cycle," the network said. "There are no two people better equipped to co-moderate a substantial and fact-based discussion."

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the moderators would face attacks no matter which network was producing the debate. He expects this to continue throughout the week, including the post-debate spin cycle.

"Social media will be full of complaints about bias from both sides," Sabato said. "'This is the most horrible moderating ever,' or, 'How dare they ask that question of Trump and not Biden?'"

The date for the event is months earlier than any previous general election debate, which could work to CNN's advantage. In past presidential cycles, the first candidate match-ups were in early fall. The staging on Thursday takes into account the new reality of early voting, which in many states begins in September.

Even if the simulcast gets a larger audience on a CNN rival, it's the network's brand name and personalities that will get exposure through social media clips and streaming online, at least until the candidates' next face-to-face encounter in September.

Klein said that additional exposure is more important than ever for the news network at a time when many consumers are abandoning traditional TV.

"Enabling people to revisit the debate online will be very important in exposing their brand to a new generation of users and reminding younger news consumers that CNN is the home of the kind of objective, unbiased coverage that a sizable portion of the audience still wants," Klein said.


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