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Debate wait stalls fall TV skeds

Nets' hands tied until Bush sets October sked

In keeping mum about when and where he’ll debate Democratic opponent Al Gore, GOP presidential contender George W. Bush is starting to wreak havoc with the already delayed rollout of TV’s fall lineups.

Bush has not said whether he’ll agree to an October debate program set by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Schedule — hammered out in lengthy negotiations between networks and the commission — calls for Bush and Gore to debate in primetime slots on Oct. 3, 11 and 17.

A vice presidential debate between Bush running mate Dick Cheney and Gore running mate Joseph Lieberman is scheduled for Oct. 5.

Until Bush announces whether he agrees to the commission’s itinerary, the networks’ hands are essentially tied, as they still plan to carry the debates live.

“They’re making tough demands,” one network exec said. “We’re saying to the Bush people, tell us where you want to be and we’ll make it work.”

One exec suggested that the webs may even end up airing the debates one network at a time, rather than as a group, if the uncertainty continues.

“Obviously we’ll try to accommodate,” he said. “But the irony is, they’ll wait until two weeks before the election and then we’ll get criticized” if the webs can’t accommodate those last-minute debates.

It’s typically difficult for the networks to schedule around the debates, which are almost always decided at the last minute. But this year’s later-than-usual Summer Olympics pushed the start of the TV season back to Oct. 2 — right in the midst of campaign season and baseball playoffs.

The Oct. 3 and Oct. 5 debates, for example, will land smack dab in the middle of what’s traditionally known as premiere week, when the major networks (especially the original Big Three) traditionally roll out their new and returning skeins.

As a result, CBS, NBC and ABC — which usually announce their premiere dates by late July — still can’t confirm when they’re launching their fall series. And the premiere week concept has been thrown out the window this year, as all the networks will now have to stagger their launches into November sweeps.

“It’s frustrating. That would be an accurate statement,” said CBS Television president and CEO Leslie Moonves.

Of the Big Four, only Fox has announced its fall dates — but even those are heavily subject to change. As of now, the network plans to debut what many consider to be its hottest new series, “Dark Angel,” on Oct. 3.

The net will have to move that premiere, however, if the debate scheduled that night, as well as the one scheduled on Oct. 17, go on as planned.

“If you act as if they’re not there, then you’re better off than overthinking it,” one network exec said. “You can’t base all your plans based on the debate. They keep changing. For all we know, they might not decide until two weeks before they debate. So what can you do?”

Since the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed in 1988, no presidential candidate has refused its invitation. Commission executive director Janet Brown said she is fairly confident that the dates will remain as set.

“Our whole mission is to make sure the debates happen on nights and at a time when the largest number of Americans have access to them,” Brown told Daily Variety.

A Bush campaign spokesman said the commission’s invitation is one of many the Bush/Cheney ticket are considering.

A Gore campaign spokesman said it’s unclear whether Bush will even follow through and debate at all. “I honestly think an informed voter is the most dangerous thing Bush is facing,” the spokesman said.

As early as last spring, Gore began aggressively challenging Bush to debate him once the nominating conventions were over.

Last week, at the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention, Bush announced he would agree to three presidential and two vice presidential debates.

In recent days, both campaigns have appointed special teams to negotiate the terms and conditions of the debates.

Finding dates and times agreeable to the networks has been challenge enough, during this and previous campaigns.

In addition to the fall debut of various shows, there are always major sporting events, such as the World Series and NFL games, Brown said. In 1988, NBC cut away from the Olympics to carry a presidential debate sponsored by the commission, she said.

This year, with the campaigns dragging their feet before announcing debate dates, the networks aren’t even sure how to promote their fall schedules. Magazine deadlines are approaching rapidly, for example, but the networks can’t yet throw firm premiere dates in their print advertisements.

“We’re really in a bind,” said NBC Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier. “We have long-lead magazine deadlines, and we’re going to be vamping what those premiere dates are.”

With only five weeks left until the season begins, that won’t help as networks try to attract viewers to an already confusing year of series premieres.

“Between baseball, the debates, the Olympics and the sweeps in November, we’re looking at an extremely difficult environment to get people’s attention focused on fall,” Ancier said.

For now, NBC has only been able to lock in its Monday (Oct. 2), Saturday (Oct. 7) and Sunday (Oct. 8) premiere dates. The Peacock’s “Must See TV” Thursday lineup is expected to return Thursday, Oct. 12, if the debates on Oct. 5 occur.

Among other potential skedding headaches: CBS’ “Bette,” one of the fall’s most-anticipated new comedies, might not even bow until at least Oct. 18. The net airs the Country Music Assn. Awards on the first Wednesday of the season (Oct. 4) and a debate is tentatively set for the second Wednesday (Oct. 11).

Sources say ABC is also planning to debut some of its new series, such as the Wednesday drama “Gideon’s Crossing,” in late October to avoid the debates and give the network more time to promote its lineup post-Olympics.

Despite the scheduling nightmares posed by this year’s wishy-washy debate scheduling, Nielsen Media Research spokesman Jack Loftus said it would be unusual for the networks to forgo live coverage of the debates.

“I think that will generate excitement and will probably generate an audience because it’s so close,” he said.

A spokesman for CBS News agreed the networks still feel a responsibility to carry the debates.

“They are the only opportunity for the American public, if they so choose, to see the candidates with each other answering questions under the same conditions and in a format that hopefully will lead to the imparting of straight information,” the spokesman said. “It is important that we carry it.”

Sources also note that the networks still can’t afford to rock the boat in Washington — especially Fox, which needs regulatory approval before its acquisition of Chris-Craft is finalized.

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