Candidates need to plan for cord cutters or they will miss their most valuable voting block

Many Internet-only households will miss out on the presidential debates. This might be annoying for snubbed viewers, but can be catastrophic for the candidates. David Gewirtz explains why.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

There is no doubt that Fox News knocked it out of the park last week in terms of overall TV viewership for the first official Republican debate. Depending on which interpretation you use, Fox News reached anywhere from 24 million to 36 million viewers, plus an additional six million who watched the "kiddies table" debate earlier in the evening.

So, from the TV business point of view, the debate was a win. But from the candidates' point of view, perhaps not so much. Here's why.

As of last April or so, I joined millions of people who are commonly called cord-cutters. We are the people who no longer purchase cable TV. We prefer, instead, to get all of our content over the Internet. Cutting the cord dropped about $130 per month in fees and -- up until debate season -- my wife and I didn't even notice the loss. We were able to binge-watch Game of Thrones and Veep through HBO Now, and that's pretty much all that mattered.

But even in this Internet-centric world, one thing holds on tight to its TV roots: the debates. After all, the debates are mostly broadcast over the major networks, and those networks have, in the main, been loathe to bypass the cable service carriers.

Fox News is one example. Even though the Fox News site said you could watch the debate on foxnews.com, they left out the detail that it was necessary to have an active cable subscription to be able to tune in. When I asked a Fox News VP about this on the morning of the debate, she responded that the debate would be available in ungated form the next morning.

As it turned out, for some people (my neighbor included) the Fox News streaming service made available to paying cable subscribers didn't hold up. The losers' debate streamed fine, but when it came time for the main event, all he got on Fox News was a blank screen.

Although it's now a few days later, a search by my editor found an ungated link to the 5pm junior varsity debate on Fox News, but the video block on the main debates page now states clearly "Click the video to login with your video provider."

Again, with the viewership numbers Fox News registered, the stream clearly wasn't a major business problem. But for the candidates -- they lost the potential to reach some of their most influential voters -- the young and Internet-centric.

I should also point out that the Internet-savvy aren't going to do what they normally do to content gates: route around them. Two separate Twitter correspondents tweeted me links to pirated live feeds of the Fox debate and on Friday morning, there were a number of full recordings of the debate on YouTube (which is how I finally watched it). Those recordings are no longer up.

According to Asymco, "the 'uncabled' or 'never-cabled' are a significant portion of the population. 13.5% of broadband households with an adult under 35 have no pay-TV subscriptions. 8.6 million US households have broadband Internet but no pay-TV subscription. That's 7.3% of households, up from 4.2% in 2010. Another 5.6 million households 'are prime to be among the next wave of cord-cutters,' according to Experian."

When you start talking about 7-12 percent of households, you're looking at a big enough block to swing a vote.

And it's not like cord-cutters don't watch TV or consume entertainment. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols reports that "69 percent of the Internet's bandwidth goes to entertainment videos at peak hours."

Now here's where it starts to get brutal for the candidates. According to ComScore, younger folks (like the next 50 years worth of voters) are less likely to watch TV on an actual TV than those 35 and above. 24 percent of millennials don't subscribe to pay TV, period.

That's a quarter of the soon-to-be most influential voting block for the foreseeable future. Do you see how this could be bad for the candidates?

As for the Republicans, it gets worse

A Pew Research study last year showed that 18-30 year-olds skew Democratic by about ten percentage points. If these younger voters (remember a quarter of them don't get traditional TV) don't have access to debates, they're unlikely to move the needle for the GOP. And since most voters tend to stay with the party they first voted with, this could be very damning for the future of the GOP.

Gallup showed similar numbers, with one additional and very important detail: many younger voters refuse to affiliate with any party. Yep, the independents, the key block that any candidate needs to win, is also the key block that will be hardest to reach.

Add it up

So let's add it up, shall we? About a quarter of young voters don't get network TV through cable or over-the-air. If they watch, it's over the Internet. 7-12 percent of households across the United States don't get cable TV. Younger voters skew strongly Democrat or independent, by about 10 percent.

Presidential Election 2016: Can Republicans do Web sites?

The bottom line here is very simple. If candidates and parties (and, particularly the GOP) don't make sure their debates are available on the Internet, in full, they will lose the one voting block they need the most.

And the Republican establishment thought Donald Trump was their biggest problem! Wait 'til they get a load of their cord-cutter conundrum.

I have one thing to say to any party official who doesn't insist that all their debates are available to stream on the Internet:
Original image: Gage Skidmore

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Editorial standards