In CNN’s presidential debate, cord-cutters lost

CNN offered viewers without a subscription to cable access to the debate on its website. The live stream was slow and crashed several times.
CNN offered viewers without a subscription to cable access to the debate on its website. The live stream was slow and crashed several times. esmith@sacbee.com

Minutes after the first Democratic debate ended and CNN’s online coverage went dark for the final time, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told a throng of reporters: “We do need a political revolution in this country, where millions of people are not engaged in the political process. They don’t even vote. … We have got to get them re-engaged to stand up and fight.”

We suggest the senator from Vermont start by taking the issue up with CNN.

The news network was the sole producer of Tuesday’s debate and, for viewers, proved to be a welcoming host and an unforgiving bouncer. More than 15 million Americans watched the debate on their TVs. But many others, the ones without the means or desire to subscribe to cable or satellite TV services, had a much harder time tuning in.

In a grave disservice to the electoral process, CNN limited free viewing of the debate to a live stream on its website. People with increasingly popular Internet-service-only subscriptions to Comcast’s Xfinity and AT&T’s U-verse, for example, were out of luck using the CNNgo app.

Compounding the problem: The free live stream of the debate was prone to freezing, choking, stuttering, repeating itself and refusing to load, all of which prompted thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of angry tweets and Facebook posts.

And yet the demand was there. CNN says its live stream peaked at almost 1 million concurrent viewers, topping the network’s numbers for last month’s GOP debate, which peaked at 921,000.

It’s further proof that so-called “cord cutting” is a real thing — one that has caused plenty of handwringing among TV networks and providers, as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon gain ground.

TV providers recorded their biggest-ever quarterly drop in subscribers between April and June of this year, losing 625,000 customers, according to the research firm SNL Kagan. Although that doesn’t sound like a big number – about 100.4 million households still pay for traditional TV – the concern is the phenomenon is spreading.

This is particularly true among young and affluent “cord nevers,” who are forming households and are happy to stick with Netflix and an Apple TV, along with borrowed passwords for their parents’ cable accounts so they can watch other content in a pinch.

It’s also true among poor people, who can’t afford pricey pay-TV packages or high-speed Internet service, and instead survive on Web access through smartphones and tablets.

These are precisely the people who don’t always vote and the people candidates, particularly Democrats, need most. And yet, this time around, CNN didn’t adequately prepare for them.

For something like the Academy Awards, a live stream that won’t load is merely an annoyance. That, after all, is just entertainment. But a debate, even a primary debate, among people vying to be president of the United States is something else.

Americans shouldn’t have to fight with technology to vet their elected officials. And they shouldn’t have to pay for it.