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To Air Or Not to Air?

NBC is giving its local stations the choice to air the debates or the first playoff game between the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. Fox is showing the premiere of its new drama “Dark Angel” tonight, offering the debates to its affiliates on tape-delay.

According to an NBC spokeswoman, twenty-five percent of the 222 NBC affiliates will be airing the presidential debate live. NBC owns 13 of the affiliates.

ABC, CBS, PBS, as well as CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC on cable, will carry the debates live and in their entirety.

In an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, Kennard asked NBC affiliates to “atone for their network’s timidity” and show tonight’s debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush rather than baseball.

Kennard said the NBC and Fox decisions were “particularly galling” in light of the 1996 Congressional decision to give the networks the space on the broadcast spectrum needed to offer digital television, which some experts say is worth more than $70 billion.

“This generous gift came with a caveat,” Kennard wrote, “As the broadcasters reap billions from use of the airwaves, they must also serve the public interest.”

In a statement released today, NBC said the decision to offer dual feeds to its affiliates satisfies its obligation to its viewers as well as its contract with Major League Baseball.

“By offering feeds of the debate and the baseball game, we will leave the decision to our local stations and affiliates — who know their audiences best,” it said.

The network said it had informed the Commission on Presidential Debates of the conflict before the commission chose the debate dates. And the network pointed out its news division would still be on the air on its cable network, MSNBC.

In a written statement today, Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox’s parent company, News Corp., said the network is forgoing the debates to offer an unfiltered hour of discourse from Gore and Bush 11 days before the general election.

“This way, there will be no filter — no interruptions from a moderator, the other candidate or the audience — just the presidential candidates explaining why they deserve the support of the American people,” Murdoch said.

The issue of free air time — time allotted by stations or networks for candidates to address voters directly over the airwaves — has also been a sticking point throughout the election season.

CBS made headlines last week with an announcement that its network-owned stations will set aside five minutes a day for candidates to discuss issues during the last month of the campaign. The commitment affects 15 stations in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston.

The Alliance for Better Campaigns, an advocacy group, has been urging the networks and stations across the country to adopt the five-minute standard. Paul Taylor, the group’s executive director, applauded the CBS decision, calling it an “important first step toward creating a new kind of political campaign on television.”