New York Times News Service and The Associated Press

How to watch

This week’s Democratic presidential debates — the first of the 2020 election — are airing on NBC broadcast affiliates, MSNBC and Telemundo channels at 6-8 p.m. Pacific time on both nights, Wednesday and Thursday.

MIAMI — For all of the cable news chatter, Twitter skirmishes and presidentially bestowed nicknames, this week’s prime-time Democratic debates mark the entry point for millions of Americans who are just now tuning into a contest that will dominate news coverage for the next 16 months.

It’s also the starting gun for a media frenzy that is poised to outstrip even the coverage of the raucous 2016 campaign. NBC is preempting four hours of lucrative weeknight programming for a two-night showcase that could draw 20 million viewers, by far the biggest platform of the primary season so far. Roughly 700 journalists will descend on Miami on Wednesday, a reminder that in the era of Donald Trump, television still has the power to determine candidates’ destinies.

“Network news still assembles the largest marketplace, the largest public square of any form of news,” said Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center for media and society at the University of Southern California.

Ten presidential candidates, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, will converge on the debate stage Wednesday on the first night of Democratic debates. The others are: Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar; Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan; former Reps. Beto O’Rourke and John Delaney; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; and Julian Castro, a former mayor and housing secretary.

One split that could emerge Wednesday centers on “Medicare for All,” the single-payer health plan introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders and supported by Warren and others. But some candidates are not fully on board, preferring more incremental reforms. Delaney has been especially vocal in his criticism.

With so many White House hopefuls on stage, it could be difficult to dive too deep on any given issue. NBC News, which is hosting the debate, said candidates will have 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds for follow-ups. They will be allowed closing statements but no openers.

All the candidates are competing ahead of a major fundraising deadline that will have lasting implications. The end of the second fundraising quarter on Sunday gives candidates a chance to make a splash with strong numbers ahead of the mid-July deadline to report that information to the Federal Election Commission.

The debate will unfold as many Democratic voters are just beginning to tune in.

Only 35% of registered Democrats say they’re paying close attention to the campaign, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Two-thirds say they’re paying some or no attention.

“People may have heard (the candidates’) names, but they couldn’t pick them out and don’t know much about them,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist. “None of them are going to seal the deal in the first debate, but they need to get people interested enough to want to learn more.

The debate’s second night on Thursday features more of the leading Democrats in the race. Former Vice President Joe Biden will stand at center stage with Sanders at his left and Mayor Pete Buttigieg at his right.

Several candidates went to Florida early to raise money or court voters in the critical battleground state. Not to be outdone, Vice President Mike Pence was also in Miami on Tuesday to launch “Latinos for Trump” as part of an effort to engage Latino voters for 2020.