Debate-leery pols still not ready for primetime

NBC, CNN to share feed; CBS refuses to air competish

GOP contender George Bush is ready to rumble; VP Al Gore says fine, but not unless everybody can watch. And the major networks’ debate debacle, which has delayed the launch of the fall lineup, has become even more confusing.

And that’s not even counting David Letterman’s latenight invitations.

Bush had a busy weekend. He rejected two of three invitations to debate Gore in primetime slots arranged by the Commission on Presidential Debates and, instead, has challenged Gore to debate him on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CNN’s “Larry King Live.” Then, while onstage in Indiana and thinking his mike was off, he whispered to his running mate that a New York Times reporter was “a major league asshole.”

Tossing tradition in the Labor Day barbecue pit, the Texas governor trumpeted his plan under which individual television networks would present two of the three debates, instead of all the major nets airing all of them. Saying he preferred “free-flowing, spontaneous” discussions rather than the more formally structured commission debates, Bush chose a special 60-minute primetime edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sept. 12 and a 60-minute edition of CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Oct. 3 as his preferred venues.

The Gore campaign wants three 90-minute primetime debates as proposed by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), saying those will reach the widest audience. Gore said Bush must agree to the commission debates before any others.

“It’s become a tradition to get all the networks together and give all of the American people the right to see three 90-minute, primetime debates, the vice president said on NBC’s “Today.”

Open feeds

Both CNN and NBC have agreed to make video feeds of the events simultaneously available to other nets. NBC spokeswoman Barbara Levin said the Peacock would open the feed to “any broadcast, cable or Internet outlet.”

CBS does not plan to air the broadcast of a competing network. “Our intention is to cover the commission debates if they happen,” said CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. “It’s not our plan to carry a CNN debate or an NBC debate.” Late Monday, Fox News and ABC had not decided whether they would air the NBC and CNN debates, but sources say it’s unlikely.

Of the three presidential debates proposed by the CPD, Bush agreed to only one, scheduled for Oct. 17. The commission, established in 1988 and host of the major debates of the last three presidential races, has scheduled the other two debates for Oct. 3 and Oct. 11.

Bush decision final

A Gore campaign spokesman said the vice president — widely considered a skilled debater — would gladly meet up with Bush in other venues, such as “Larry King Live,” but only if Bush first agreed to all three CPD debates. Bush officials, however, have said their decision to accept only one of the commission debates was final.

In a terse statement issued over the Labor Day weekend, the CPD said it is “committed to sponsor and produce debates that educate the largest number of Americans possible” and that its plan “continues to be the one in the best interest of the American public.” The CPD has asked the Gore and Bush campaigns for a meeting this week.

CPD executive director Janet Brown recently told Daily Variety that she spent nearly two years negotiating the three dates with the networks.

“The CPD’s schedule was specifically developed to minimize conflict with other scheduled television programs which would have reduced the size of the national audience (such as the Olympics, baseball playoffs and World Series), and to minimize competition between networks,” the CPD statement released Sunday said.

Seasonal dilemma

As earlier reported (Daily Variety, Aug. 25), the delayed decisions regarding the presidential debates has been wreaking havoc with the already postponed rollout of TV’s fall lineups. The Oct. 3 debate, for example, will land smack dab in the middle of what’s traditionally known as premiere week, when the major nets (especially the original Big Three) traditionally roll out their new and returning skeins.

Bush’s Indiana faux pas was a reference to the New York Times’ Adam Clymer, who recently wrote a series of articles critical of the Texas governor’s record in Austin.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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