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ARLEDGE AIRS DEBATE IDEAS

NEW YORK — ABC News president Roone Arledge, responding to tepid interest in the presidential campaigns, proposed changes in debate and convention coverage to drum up more viewers.

Arledge, receiving the Center for Communications’ 1996 award at a Gotham luncheon Thursday, said record-low ratings for the conventions and even on Election Night signal that “obviously there is something wrong” with network coverage. Going into the campaign, “we knew what we had to do, but making it interesting was very difficult,” he said.

As a potential solution, Arledge proposed, on behalf of ABC, that all major networks offer two nightly hours of unfiltered convention coverage, without analysis or floor reporters, if the political parties would agree to shrink the confabs to two nights from four. He also reiterated a pledge to offer a full hour of free airtime to candidates for an unmoderated exchange, which he thinks would be more palatable in 2000, when no incumbent is up for reelection.

“It would give candidates the chance to get away from prepackaged answers and spin control of the debates,” Arledge said. “If it was good enough for Lincoln and Douglas, it ought to be good enough for us.”

In a third, unrelated proposal, Arledge said webs should support primetime docus, a nearly “extinct” breed on broadcast TV, by substituting them for failing entertainment shows and somehow omitting their typically weak ratings from Nielsen reports, so as not to drag down webs’ weekly performance.

“If we do a Bosnia special the audience is going to go in many respects to the other three networks, but at least you wouldn’t have to count it. And that would make a great deal of difference,” Arledge said, by encouraging webs to air them.

Execs at rival networks said they’d weigh the proposals but called some of them unrealistic.

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