Spain’s first live debate between two prime ministerial candidates ever broadcast on television was aired Monday night on private channel Antena 3.

Socialist party incumbent Felipe Gonzalez debated leading challenger Jose Maria Aznar, from the conservative opposition Partido Popular (PP), making history in several ways.

With one third of Spain watching (the 34 rating/62 share garnered an average of almost 10 million viewers), the 10:30 p.m.-12:45 a.m. debate won the highest audience for a news-oriented program shown in this late-night-loving nation.

News programs aside, the all-around highest-rated shows in Spain over the past few years top out at around 12 million viewers.

Feather in cap

Antena 3 now has a real feather in its cap. But it had to fight hard for the rights with rival private channel Tele Cinco and with pubcaster TVE, which had always held the monopoly on media-wielded political persuasiveness, and always to the advantage of the ruling party.

Allegedly, no money was involved.

Another Gonzalez/Aznar debate is skedded for May 31 on Tele Cinco.

Tele Cinco may reap even richer rating results, possibly benefiting from a viewer appetite that, by all indications, was only whetted by Antena 3’s success.

Unusual move

In a rather unorthodox move, Antena 3 prexy Antonio Asensio was on hand for a pre-debate interview, expounding on the importance of this “first” for Spanish TV, as well as pride in his web’s preparation for the event.

An adjacent VIP studio with over 300 guests, as well as a studio for 180 journalists, were set up for the occasion, both with oversize video screens

In the end, Asensio’s pride was well-founded, as even hard-nosed critics praised the organization and direction of the debate, moderated by Antena 3 director Manuel Campo Vidal. With recent surveys claiming that the debates would play a crucial role in the June 6 elections, with several million still-undecided voters, this first debate, according to overnight polls, went in challenger Aznar’s favor. Tuesday morning headlines almost unanimously placed Gonzalez the underdog.