After televised debate, pundits move in to dissect the performances

Wednesday, October 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Millions of TV viewers exercised their options to tune out Al Gore and George W. Bush, but preliminary ratings showed that ABC and CBS had a bigger audience than for the first Clinton-Dole debate four years ago.

The combined audience for ABC and CBS was an estimated 32 million people for Tuesday's presidential debate, according to an analysis of Nielsen Media Research figures from the nation's largest markets. Those two networks had roughly 26 million viewers for the first debate in 1996 between President Clinton and Bob Dole.

It wasn't possible to estimate by Wednesday morning the total audience for the debate, which also was carried by PBS, some NBC stations and cable networks.

While Gore and Bush parried over issues, the Fox network aired the drama ``Dark Angel.'' It was the first time one of the four major broadcast networks declined to carry a presidential debate live.

Fox's estimated audience for ``Dark Angel'' was 14 million people, significantly higher than its usual Tuesday audience, according to Nielsen.

Given a choice, many NBC stations aired the American League baseball playoff game between the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics instead of the debate. An estimated 11 million people watched NBC _ although Nielsen could not immediately report who was watching baseball and who saw politics.

Based on ABC and CBS measurements, viewership stayed pretty steady throughout the debate. CBS's audience grew from the first half hour, and ABC dropped slightly during the last half hour, said Larry Hyams, chief of research at ABC.

``The people who tuned in at the beginning were there at the end,'' Hyams said.

The most-watched presidential debate, between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, drew 80 million people. The first Clinton-Dole debate in 1996 had 46 million viewers, the second had 36 million.

CBS anchor Dan Rather proclaimed long stretches of the first Bush-Gore encounter ``pedantic, dull, unimaginative, lackluster, humdrum _ you pick the words.''

``Governor Bush's father was criticized for looking at his watch during the presidential debate in 1992, but there were many across the country tonight doing much the same thing,'' Rather said.

Several network pundits said Bush stood to gain the most by not appearing to wilt under the pressure.

``I think he surprised a lot of people who thought he couldn't complete a sentence,'' CNN's Jeff Greenfield said.

ABC's George Stephanopoulos, a former Clinton aide, said Gore was able to dominate by talking longer and steering the debate to issues that played well for him. But, he added, the vice president had a tendency to swagger.

ABC and CNN used groups of voters, supposedly including several who were undecided, and interviewed them. The ABC panel indicated Bush did well; more of the CNN group favored Gore.

Cable network MSNBC employed NBC correspondent Lisa Myers and a group of researchers as a ``truth squad'' to look for misstatements of fact.

Earlier Tuesday, the head of the Federal Communications Commission criticized Fox and NBC for not airing the debate live. Broadcasters have an obligation to serve the public given their free use of the public airwaves, FCC Chairman William Kennard said.

``This is a fundamental obligation that is not tradable,'' Kennard said. ``All the networks should be covering all of the debates live.''

NBC stations were mixed in what they showed. The Hotline, an industry newsletter, said 44 NBC affiliates planned to show baseball and 28 intended to air the debates. Of the 44 carrying the game, 13 later planned to show the debate on tape delay.


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