The Biggest Hit Of The Fall Season, And The Nets Can't Get A Nickel For It

With the first George W. Bush - John Kerry presidential debate drawing 62.5 million viewers, the only question the networks should now be asking is when will they be able to sell advertising time in this big-rated series.

With viewership across the four networks 34 percent higher than the first George W. Bush - Al Gore debate in 2000, it's a question the networks should be asking - especially considering current TV market and the negotiations among the campaigns over the structure of the event.

Both campaigns didn't want the networks to show "reaction shots" of their candidates. As a result, Bush, didn't appear in the best light. He rolled his eyes; he appeared, at times, bored by the whole process.

It didn't matter to viewers. The ratings say it was good television. Not only that, but the debates even yielded immediate results. Faster than you can say Karl Rove, President Bush's 8 or even 10 percent lead, according to some polls, evaporated. Now, according to many pollsters, the race is just about even.



The networks should charge for such results. Here's why:

Except for CBS and NBC, all networks lose money. Why should the networks give up an hour and a half of prime, primetime advertising inventory? That comes to $3 million to $4 million per hour - up to $16 million for all four networks.

If not a commercial break, why not at least have a bottom-of-the-screen scroll for some corporate highbrow "Meet The Press" or "Face the Nation" sponsors? Presidential elections are after all, business - the networks should treat them as such.

Not in the public interest you say? Maybe you are forgetting the network business is a for-profit venture. The networks already take in millions of political advertising dollars in big election years. They are already in the political business, albeit at the lowest unit rate.

TV ratings and revenue are harder to come by. And now the campaigns are getting more ruthless -- they not only want the time for debates free of advertising, they specifically ask for specific camera angles viewers should see.

The League of Women Voters, which has run the presidential debates for many years, abandoned the debate process several years ago for exactly this reason. It wasn't an impartial event. Presidential campaign teams increasingly dictated terms and structure. Big-time, moneyed candidates didn't want a puny women's group telling them how to run things.

Now the campaigns negotiate with each other - and the networks in public interest - show us the debates.

Looking for un-edited and advertiser-free debates? Turn on C-SPAN. It offers a split screen of both candidates throughout the debate, which shows everything: Direct statements, shuffling of papers, rolling of eyes, long sighs, interrupting remarks, and sometimes, personal attacks.

Sounds like another reality show.

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