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Debates and commercial breaks: A brief history
Socially distanced chairs ahead of the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in Cleveland on Sept. 29, 2020. (AP) Socially distanced chairs ahead of the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in Cleveland on Sept. 29, 2020. (AP)

Socially distanced chairs ahead of the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in Cleveland on Sept. 29, 2020. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson September 29, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • President Donald Trump's campaign accused Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden of pushing for breaks in the first presidential debate. Biden's campaign said that never happened.
     
  • Either way, commercial breaks were never in the cards. When the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced the debate schedule for 2020, the group made clear that they would be held over 90 minutes without any breaks.

The rival camps of President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden spent the hours before their first general-election debate sparring over the issue of commercial breaks.

"Biden’s handlers have asked for multiple breaks during the debate, which President Trump doesn’t need, so we have rejected that request," Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh told Fox News

But Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, denied in a call with reporters that the Biden camp had ever made such a request.

The reality was that commercial breaks were never in the cards. 

When the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized general election debates since 1988, announced the debate schedule for 2020, the group made clear that they would be held over 90 minutes without commercial breaks.

Debates during the presidential primaries are generally organized by media outlets and do often have commercial breaks. But historically, general election debates have not.

The only opportunity that broadcast and cable networks have to monetize the debates are commercial blocks immediately before and after the debate itself. In 2016, some 30-second ads in these slots sold for more than $200,000, the Washington Post reported at the time. 

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Debates and commercial breaks: A brief history