CNN will unveil stage positions Thursday at 8 p.m. EDT for the 20-candidate debate, scheduled for July 30 and 31. For CNN, which has been touting the draw onscreen, it's an attempt to create an event out of virtually nothing that also promotes its debate coverage. But the program has also received criticism for making the nomination process seem like a game show.
The large number of candidates created the need for a lottery. Democratic officials, candidates and the networks are wary so early in the campaign about creating a two-tiered debate that has one with "major" candidates and one with those who are less popular.
CNN has released few details about how it will be handled on Thursday, and did not make an executive available to talk. The network will reveal the 20 candidates participating on Wednesday. NBC had a similar drawing before its first debate last month, but it was held without cameras in a conference room at the network's New York headquarters. There were two large boxes, one with the names of candidates with less than 2 percent in the polls, the other with candidates who had more support. NBC's standards chief Marian Porges selected one name from each box to put on one of two easels representing the two debate nights.
Campaign representatives attended, and mostly quietly texted the news to colleagues elsewhere. It all took less than 10 minutes, according to someone who was in the room who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The CNN event seems reminiscent of sports leagues like the NBA that televise lotteries and the player drafts themselves. They're popular with hopeful fans, and ABC this year was the first broadcast network to televise the NFL draft in prime-time.
CNN chief Jeff Zucker is both a sports fan and creative programmer whose roots include running NBC's entertainment division during the era of Donald Trump's "Apprentice" and the "Today" show before that.
"It doesn't reek of presidential stature to me," said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC News executive now dean of Hofstra University's communication school. Lukasiewicz said he understood the instinct to build an audience and anticipation for the debate, probably the last in this cycle with such a large group of candidates. But, he said, "it's another step in the game-ification of the primary process, and I'm not sure that's a good thing."
Lynne Adrine, director of Syracuse University's Washington-based graduate program in broadcast and digital journalism, said television already has too much non-substantive campaign coverage.