The 90-minute debate, which aired live at 9 p.m. EDT on Sept. 30, drew at least 62.5 million viewers across seven broadcast and cable outlets, compared with roughly 46.5 million viewers who watched the first debate between Mr. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore in October 2000, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Though the showdown did not touch the record 80.6 million who watched the face-off between President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980, it still drew more viewers than the final episode of Friends or the opening ceremonies of this summer’s Olympics, two of the largest television audiences this year.
Of the broadcast networks, NBC drew the biggest audience of the night with an average of 17.2 million viewers, CBS pulled in 13.5 million viewers, while ABC trailed with 11.5 million. The Fox News cable channel ranked fourth with 9.5 million viewers, but topped other cable news channels, including CNN and MSNBC, which brought in 4.4 million and 1.2 million viewers respectively.
The overall audience was likely even larger since Nielsen does not provide ratings for two noncommercial networks, C-SPAN and PBS, which broadcast the NewsHour’s special debate coverage.
Ahead of the live debate, the Bush and Kerry campaigns had agreed on a 32-page guideline on ground rules. However, the networks stirred controversy by defying a rule explicitly outlawing “cutaway” shots or split screens, which show one candidate’s facial expressions while the other speaks.
Fox News Channel, which operated the “pool” cameras that supplied the broadcast feed for all the networks under a rotation system, said it would use whatever shots it deemed appropriate.
Following the debate, Fox News executive producer Marty Ryan explained that the cable network tended to use a split screen when the exchange between the candidates became especially pointed.
“We weren’t looking for somebody taking a drink of water or adjusting their coat,” Ryan told Reuters. “We looked for occasions when they specifically referred to the other, especially when the criticism in both directions was a little more harsh. That’s when you want to see the reaction of the other candidate.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan group sponsoring the debates, said it could not be expected to enforce restrictions on network coverage of the four debates.
If this restriction had been enforced in the past, it would have censored the heavy sighs and disapproving expressions of then-Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 debates or the shot of Bush’s father glancing at his watch during a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
In the post-debate analysis, commentators quickly picked up on the effect of cutaway shots and split screens. Most agreed it had a negative impact on the president’s image and helped that of Senator Kerry, who showed less emotion and came across as confident during the live event.
Fox News anchor Brit Hume noted that the president “looked annoyed,” and Washington Post political writer Ceci Connelly remarked to Hume, “Several times it looked to me as if the president was sucking on a lemon.”
U.S. News & World Report political editor Roger Simon summarized on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that President Bush had “made it the scowl and growl debate.”
The Bush campaign’s communications director Nicolle Devenish told the New York Times that the president looked “the way any human being does when someone says something that squarely falls in the chutzpah category.”
Nevertheless, the “scowl and growl” perception of President Bush appears to have taken root in the media, from late night comedy shows, such as NBC’s “Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” to recent political analysis.
Ron Brownstein, national political correspondent and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, on Oct. 4 wrote: “[The president’s] irritation at Kerry’s aggressive criticism — pursed lips, scowls — has become a centerpiece of post-debate discussion.”
Underscoring the significance of camera shots, Brownstein asked, “Are Bush’s scowls likely to turn the race?” and concluded, “The danger for Bush is that the images will convince voters he is indignant when questioned or challenged.”