NEW YORK (AP) -- By airing the fourth Republican presidential primary debate scheduled for tonight -- again, minus Donald Trump -- the young NewsNation television network will almost certainly reach the largest audience in its history.
Yet with two of the three debate moderators associated with conservative media and not NewsNation, including podcast star Megyn Kelly, the event threatens to be at odds with the centrist image the network is trying to cultivate.
"I think it's an amazing opportunity and allows us to have more people fully sample the network and see who we are and what we're doing," said Cherie Grzech, NewsNation's senior vice president of news and politics.
Her advice to those who have doubts about how NewsNation can pull it off: Just watch.
A network still seeking an audience
The debate is to air from 7-9 p.m. CST and will also be shown on the CW network, which like NewsNation is owned by the Nexstar Media Group. The CW will show it live in the eastern half of the country, and tape-delayed out West.
NewsNation took over for the old WGN America network in late 2020 and has tried to establish itself with personalities who made names for themselves elsewhere: Chris Cuomo from CNN, Dan Abrams of ABC News, Ashleigh Banfield from MSNBC and former Fox News host Leland Vittert.
Ratings suggest it's still looking for an audience -- and has a way to go. NewsNation averaged 99,000 viewers in prime time in November, compared to Fox News Channel's 1.73 million, MSNBC's 1.14 million, CNN's 540,000 and Newsmax's 207,000, the Nielsen company said.
The network bills itself as an unbiased alternative to competitors with more hardened partisan images. Abrams told the Hollywood Reporter that NewsNation's sweet spot is the "marginalized moderate majority who don't want hyper-partisan outlets."
Critics, like the liberal media watchdog Media Matters, suggest NewsNation leans more right than down the middle. A Daily Beast writer who watched the network for a week this fall, Joe Berkowitz, had a similar view, writing that "left-leaning voices are heard on NewsNation rarely, briefly and cursorily -- as if to tick a box."
The network's ranks include several Fox News alums, including Grzech and Chris Stirewalt, its politics editor. Former Fox executive Bill Shine is a consultant.
Grzech suggested those critics haven't watched NewsNation much. "I don't see that. and it isn't the experience I've had here at all," she said.
A high-profile debate headliner
In awarding the rights to televise today's debate, the Republican National Committee chose the debate moderators. The one with NewsNation ties is Elizabeth Vargas, formerly of ABC News, who hosts an evening newscast on the network. Eliana Johnson of the conservative site Washington Free Beacon was also selected.
The headliner, though, is Kelly. Working with Kelly is a throwback for Grzech; they did debate prep together when both were at Fox. Kelly's experience working debates during the 2016 Republican presidential nominating process shot her to fame through her feud with Trump.
Kelly signed a big free agent contract with NBC News but that didn't work out, and she negotiated an exit when her 2018 suggestion that it was OK for white people to wear blackface on Halloween caused a furor.
She's since remade herself as a podcast and radio star, much more publicly opinionated than before, and is taking a role as a debate moderator that has traditionally been filled by impartial journalists.
It's not like Kelly hasn't done it before. But, in her new job, she hasn't been shy about offering opinions on the people who will be debating.
She's criticized Ron DeSantis for taking on the Walt Disney Corp. in Florida and said of him during a debate in September on social media, "Seriously, Ron DeSantis, you do not need to smile the whole debate. Whoever told you that misled you."
Kelly called Nikki Haley's announcement of her presidential candidacy "cringy." On X, formerly Twitter, she posted: "Is it just me, or has (Chris) Christie lost a little off his fastball?" She posted "you've got to be kidding me" in response to one of Vivek Ramaswamy's X messages in October.
And during one of the debates on Fox, she posted, "I'm bored."
"I think there's an argument to be had about whether she's a journalist anymore," said Tom Jones, senior media writer at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. "My concern if I was NewsNation is that Megyn Kelly is going to come in with her own agenda and turn this debate upside down."
Jones said he admired how Kelly has remade her career, "but I don't know if the job she does now necessarily qualifies her to be a moderator for a debate."
Kelly, through a representative, declined an interview request.