In Depth

ABC Debate Generates Ratings, Controversy

ABC News generated the biggest presidential debate audience of the year along with swirls of controversy with its two-hour faceoff between Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

Some 10.7 million total viewers tuned in during the debate moderated by “World News” anchor Charles Gibson and “This Week’s” George Stephanopoulos, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.

In Philadelphia, the broadcast scored an 18 rating (meaning 18% of the TV homes in the market were tuned to the debate) and a 27 share (meaning 27% of all TV sets in use in the market were tuned to the debate).

“That’s like an NFL game,” Dave Davis, the executive VP in charge of ABC News programming and special events such as the debate, told TelevisionWeek.

Mr. Davis defended his two moderators and the structure of the debate against the criticism.

TV critics, journalism publications and political pundits railed about everything from the number of reaction shots of Chelsea Clinton to the types of questions asked, especially during the first hour of the broadcast. During that period, Mr. Gibson and Mr. Stephanopoulos, a former campaign and White House aide for Bill Clinton, focused on questions about electability, American-flag lapel pins and well-covered recent hot-button stories on gaffes, misstatements and mistakes by both candidates.

The program was split into three segments: the first on the issues that have drawn the fire, the second on foreign policy and Iraq and the third on domestic issues.

Mr. David said the complaints about the number of shots of Sen. Clinton’s daughter “was probably a fair criticism,” but he noted the younger Clinton was sitting in a prominent position in a small arena, the National Constitution Center, and that Sen. Obama didn’t have family members in the audience.

But on other points he was firm that he was proud of Mr. Gibson, Mr. Stephanopoulos and ABC for granting the news division the two hours to carry the debate.

Since it had been almost two months since the two Democratic contenders last met in a debate, Mr. Davis said, ABC News thought it was “appropriate” to catch people up on the issues that triggered the criticism Thursday. “In my mind they are issues,” he said, particularly since so little distance separates the two candidates on the issues that should have gotten more focus according to the critics.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, a supporter of Sen. Clinton, said he was “very disappointed in ABC that the first 45 minutes to an hour of the debate was on those sort of gotcha issues,” in an interview broadcast on ABC-owned WPVI-TV.

The Associated Press reported that Sen. Obama, campaigning in North Carolina Thursday, said, “Last night I think we set a new record because it took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people. Forty-five minutes before we heard about health care, 45 minutes before we heard about Iraq, 45 minutes before we heard about jobs, 45 minutes before we heard about gas prices."

Sen. Obama characterized the debate as "the rollout of the Republican campaign against me in November. They like stirring up controversy and they like playing gotcha games, getting us to attack each other."

Sen. Obama’s campaign sent out $25 fundraising appeals headlined “Gotcha!”

“Enough is enough. The public needs the media to stop hurting the national dialogue in this important election year,” said an e-mail sent by liberal lobby MoveOn.org on Thursday to its members, asking them to sign a petition to ABC and other news organizations.

The petition asserted, “Debate moderators abuse the public trust every time they ask trivial questions about gaffes and ‘gotchas’ that only political insiders care about. Enough with the distractions—ABC and other networks must focus on issues that affect people’s daily lives.”

“The tone of the night was condescending, actually, as if Gibson and Stephanopoulos think the voters are not all that bright. They went hunting for hot buttons rather than clarity,” said the Columbia Journalism Review’s Mike Hoyt on www.cjr.org.

“The relentless rat-a-tat-tat of questions about campaign distractions by ABC moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos was a vivid illustration of what is so wrong with so much that passes for political coverage today,” said American Journalism Review editor Rem Reider.

Mr. Stephanopoulos told Politico.com: “We asked tough but appropriate questions.”

The criticism, he said, “just comes with the territory.”