TV ratings soar for election coverage

MADRID — While Spanish TV coverage of political debates still has a ways to go to become as entertaining as a Clinton-Obama verbal smackdown, local auds are certainly warming up to the candidates in the March 9 election for prime minister.

The Feb. 25 debate, between Socialist incumbent Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and right-of-center Popular Party challenger Mariano Rajoy — broadcast by pubcaster TVE and private nets Cuatro and La Sexta — was a huge ratings success.

According to Multimedia Corp., the total viewers measured 12.44 million for the three nets, the highest program aud since the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest. Share came in at 56.5%.

Even holding the televised debate was an achievement in itself.

The Popular Party has avoided them since a TV debate held on May 31, 1993, when the PP’s Jose Maria Aznar lost the elections, by his own estimation, for failing to chat with the moderator.

“The debate was sold as event TV — Mexican Lucha Libre,” says Multimedia Corp. prexy Eduardo Garcia Matilla. “Around 35% of Spaniards won’t really follow politics any other way.”

Pubcaster TVE, traditionally a government mouthpiece but now under new management, stressed neutrality to near pathological levels. Candidates’ dressing rooms, TVE informed soberly, had exactly the same decor.

Still, rather than debate each other directly, Zapatero vs. Rajoy traded a succession of two-minute monologues. Both men read windily from notes, waving too-small-to-see — and sometimes totally misleading — graphs.

The difference in the styles of the two men was nevertheless on display.

Prime Minister Zapatero is an assured debater who, despite the arched eyebrows of a well-groomed Dracula, looks good on TV.

Rajoy — bearish and blotchy, lisping in delivery — made up for his lack of oratory with aggression, tearing into Zapatero for having pacted with ETA terrorists, who want their Basque homeland to be separated from Spain. When Zapatero countered, the debate degenerated into an acrid diss-fest.

Post-debate, TVE and Cuatro rolled in analysts across the political divide.

Unfortunately, the pundits– mostly journalists — largely followed the political bias of their newspapers.

In next-day polls, Zapatero won by a whisker: 46% to 42%.

Despite limitations, Spanish TV won rather more.

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