Debatable issues

Contentious presidential discussions don't draw much of a crowd on any network. Is counterprogramming to blame?

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin compared last week's presidential debate to The Wizard of Oz: Like the Scarecrow, George W. Bush proved he had a brain, and Al Gore, with his intense responses, proved he had a heart.

But the debate also demonstrated the inability of American politics to reach its audience-even for what was expected to be a defining moment in the 2000 campaign. Ratings were disappointing as the Tuesday-night debate ran on ABC, CBS, PBS, C-SPAN, MSNBC and the FOX News Channel-virtually all the major news nets, except Fox's broadcast network and most NBC stations.

Both showed the debate on their cable news nets, but the FOX network chose to premiere prime time shows, and NBC cited a prior commitment to baseball playoffs-although, only days before the debate itself, NBC declared it would allow its more than 200 affiliates to choose the debate or the game.

After some affiliates had already said they'd depart from the schedule to show the debate, the network said it wanted to accommodate all its audiences. About a third chose the debate. Some choies were predictable. WRC-TV in Washington naturally aired the live debate, while New York City, which had the Yankees in playoff games, showed the Bronx Bombers' unsuccessful first playoff game.

Some 46.6 million viewers watched the presidential debates on seven different broadcast and cable outlets. NBC's debate audience of 6.2 million on 125 stations outdrew its baseball game (a 3.7 Nielsen rating with 4.8 million viewers on a mix of Pax and NBC stations-the lowest-rated playoff game since 1996).

The debate drew well below the projected audience of 60 million to 70 million. Fox's James Cameron-produced sci-fi drama Dark Angel scored the network's best-ever Tuesday-night ratings, and the season premieres of comedies That '70s Show and Titus also scored well.

The much younger FOX network does not have NBC's history of covering debates, but it did carry the presidential debates in 1996. "We don't think this threatens the public interest," said Andrew Butcher, News Corp. director of corporate affairs.

"We showed the debates," he said, referring to the delayed broadcast. "Because of what FOX did, more people watched the debates. On FOX stations, 1.2 million people watched the taped telecast across the country. FOX News Channel carried the debate live. Any American who wanted to see the debate live saw the debate live. All we did was give them a choice, live or taped, and we gave them an entertainment choice as well. Should we now dictate that people watch a political debate, and not give them a choice?"

Was it indifference or choice that kept viewers away? Paul Taylor, a former journalist now pushing for more TV coverage of politics, says it's a "chicken-and-egg thing."

"Among the reasons the ratings were not good is that, for the first time in the history of the debates, two of the four major networks counterprogrammed," said Taylor, now head of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. "I'm not saying that everyone who would have watched Dark Angel [on Fox] would have watched the debates. But we're talking about tens of millions of viewers.

"People have lots of opportunities to watch ballgames and entertainment programming. For a major network that gets these airways for free to look to squeeze additional profits instead of making the minimum's the height of corporate irresponsibility." NBC, Taylor suggested, might have put baseball on its cable network instead of the debates and put the debates on its main net.

Sources at NBC News noted that the decision not to run debates live was not made by network news chief Andrew Lack but by network chief Bob Wright, and said there was a predictable and considerable level of dissatisfaction among many in the news division.

It also looked to be a frustrating evening for the famously evenhanded and even-tempered moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS, as the participants-particularly Gore-frequently ignored the debate rules.

"I know we're not supposed to answer-ask each other questions," the vice president acknowledged, as he proceeded to ask his opponent a question. Pundits also commented on Gore's frequent grimaces and targeted sighs as Bush spoke; some were critical, suggesting arrogance and even meanness, while others argued that Gore's aggressiveness helped him win the debate.

ABC's Sam Donaldson and Peter Jennings, among others, hinted that Lehrer lost control of the proceeding.

"But I can't criticize him too much," Donaldson quickly added, "because the two candidates were strong willed, particularly Al Gore. And if [Lehrer had] tried to dominate himself and say, 'Look, I'm in charge here, '[he might have faced comments like] 'You're not running for anything, you're not declaring your candidacy, Mr. Lehrer.'So I have some sympathy for Jim." A PBS spokesperson said Lehrer would not comment.

During an interview by radio host Tom Joyner later in the week, Gore attributed the absence of African-American issues to Lehrer's questioning, even as he complimented the moderator. Gore also predicted that such questions would arise in the vice-presidential debate moderated by CNN's Bernard Shaw. That proved to be an accurate prediction for the low-key, and more polite, vice-presidential debates.