NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Republican presidential contenders aren't the only ones with a lot at stake in tonight's debate.
Time Warner's (TWX) CNN, which is hosting the debate, is hoping a big audience and lively discussion will help the struggling network restore some of its ratings and former glory as a cable-news channel with competitive campaign coverage.
The first Republican debate in August was a huge win for Fox, which long ago replaced CNN as the most-watched news network. The Fox event was widely credited with holding its audience captive as Fox moderators cornered candidates with poignant questions, making it difficult for them to hedge their answers.
Fox's debate drew an avalanche of ratings and, now, Time Warner's (TWX) CNN expects its own massive audience for tonight's second 2016 Republican national debate and is already reaping a windfall of advertising revenue after significantly increasing prices for its 30-second ad slots.
But if CNN wants to be taken seriously as a go-to stop for campaign coverage and continue to enjoy higher ad revenue, tonight's moderators must prove their journalism is on par with Fox's tough coverage, says University of Maryland Broadcast Professor Mark Feldstein.
"It's not just about ratings, it's about quality of the journalism," Feldstein said in a phone interview. "Fox set a standard, to many people's surprise, in that first debate. Can CNN reclaim the mantle of being one of the go-to networks for campaign coverage? If CNN doesn't do well at this -- if their ratings are lame and their questions are anemic -- the Republican contenders will be less likely to want to appear on CNN."
While CNN reaches more households than Fox -- 96.4 million versus 83.8 million as of July 2015, according to Nielsen -- it's primetime news ranks second. FOX's primetime viewers totaled 2.14 million versus CNN's 750,000 on Sept. 13. Third-ranked MSNBC's primetime viewers totaled 153,000.