Wet Hot British Summer

Mark Thompson will lewis
The highly anticipated CNN presidential debate offers a rare chance for the beleaguered news network to transcend its slide into irrelevance, if only for a night. Photos: Noam Galai/Getty Images; Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
June 26, 2024

On Thursday night, CNN will host the first, and perhaps only, presidential debate of the 2024 race—a program that seems all but destined to become the highest-rated 90 minutes in the network’s 44-year history. It’s a momentous Ali vs. Frazier political rematch that may change the course of the American presidential race, and thus the course of history. But it’s also a unique and pivotal opportunity for the beleaguered network to reestablish itself, if only for a night, as a relevant force in a culture that has largely grown ambivalent to it. In any event, a lot for CNN C.E.O. Mark Thompson and his deputies Virginia Moseley and Amy Entelis to chew on during their dinner tonight at the Four Seasons in Atlanta, just a few blocks east of the debate studio. 

Without this debate, in fact, the network would be on track to register its lowest monthly audience since the end of the Cold War. It can no longer reasonably profess to be the place people turn to for breaking news, in part, because no such place exists. Meanwhile, Thompson’s plan to usher in a robust post-linear future—a landscape where audiences habitually engage with CNN’s digital, mobile, and streaming platforms, and maybe even pay for it—remains nebulous. Thompson’s Times revival has given him profound street cred inside Hudson Yards, but his employees are increasingly antsy about the unveiling of both his grand strategy and tactics—nervous, in part, because they generally seem to grasp the profundity of the business model challenge and worry that simple measures won’t be enough. At the Times, after all, Thompson had to create a pipeline to grow consumer revenue to replace the losses in print advertising. At CNN, he has to manage the decline of TV advertising and carriage fees.