The presidential race, with its slick and stage-managed campaign events, has been tough on the broadcast networks. But the debates, which conclude tonight with a final rematch between President Bush and John Kerry, have made for riveting TV.
Simulcast on several networks, they’ve generated higher ratings than most popular network skeins. An estimated 62.5 million people tuned in to the first presidential debate, and 46.7 million watched the second, a larger audience than watched the Oscars.
These bruising showdowns are a booster shot for the broadcast networks, which have struggled for months with ratings and accusations of political bias.
News anchors have been forced to compete for scoops with Internet bloggers, and they’re still smarting from charges that they dropped the ball and gave the administration a free ride in the leadup to the invasion of Iraq.
“I think we’ve all had some serious second thoughts as to whether we were as on the ball as we should have been,” Peter Jennings said about all three networks’ pre-Iraq invasion coverage at a symposium in New York last week with Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.
But the network coverage of the debates was surprisingly bold. They ignored efforts by the campaigns not to air reaction shots by the candidates.
In both debates, the candidates provided the sort of political theater that’s been largely missing from the campaign season. They took off their gloves and came out swinging. At a time when a large percentage of the general public gets its news from other sources, from bloggers to late-night comics, this is the sort of campaign coverage that’s well worth watching.