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NBC makes time for candidates

NBC and FOX, the two networks that largely opted out of last week's presidential debate, did so while concocting other ways to address campaign coverage.

NBC last week said its 13 owned-and-operated stations will spend five minutes on political coverage each weekday leading up to the general election on Nov. 7. During those five minutes, stations will focus on candidate-centered discourse, in-depth newscast segments, debates and live interviews.

For its part, FOX Broadcasting Co. is offering the two major presidential candidates one half-hour each of network prime time at 8-9 p.m. on Oct. 27. Each candidate will be asked to respond to one question: "Why should Americans vote for you?" FOX "will leave the content entirely up to the candidates," a spokesman said.

At NBC, Jay Ireland, president of NBC Television Stations said, "As we looked at what stations are already doing, making the commitment to five minutes was fine, because we really felt that it was in line with the coverage we already do."

The networks' stance on the debates rankled official Washington. Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, in a letter to the editor published in The Washington Post, said, "For FOX to run a show called Dark Angel instead of the debate is a fitting comment on the network's failure to meet its legal and ethical responsibilities to involve the country in the political process. ''And the current chairman, William Kennard, wrote an angry op-ed piece in The New York Times (see Excerpt, page 94).

Alliance for Better Campaigns Executive Director Paul Taylor-who long has been pushing the broadcast networks to commit five minutes of airtime to political discourse in the 30 days leading up to elections-was pleased but not content, urging the broadcast networks to pay even more attention to public matters.

"In the wake of NBC's unfortunate decision not to air the first presidential debate, [the] announcement is a welcome move," said Taylor. NBC is the second major network to commit to the public-service initiative. CBS announced a similar plan two weeks ago, while ABC says its local stations will stick with business as usual.

"It remains a mystery why the most profitable media conglomerate in the country, Disney/ ABC, refuses to take this step," Taylor said.

Last week, EchoStar Communications said it will dedicate one channel, called Vote 2000, to political programming from Oct. 18 through Election Day and offer free time to the major-party candidates plus Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. EchoStar's ch. 254 will continuously run half-hour segments, amounting to more than 500 hours of political airtime over those three weeks.

Kennard likes that. The chairman said the EchoStar initiative showed that "the important concept of using television to serve the public interest is not limited to traditional, over-the-air broadcasting."