TV Viewers Must Wait for Debate

Times Staff Writer

Viewers who were hoping to tune in to a live broadcast Monday night of the last Los Angeles mayoral debate before the March 8 election were instead treated to hoopla of a different sort.

More than two months after announcing plans to sponsor the debate and air it live, KCBS-TV (Channel 2) decided at the last minute to tape the 90-minute forum and delay its broadcast by a day.

A spokesman for the station refused to explain the decision, saying there was "a variety of reasons."

Noah Modisett, a Neighborhood Council member who helped coordinate the debate, said the station told him the change was made because the 6:30 p.m. debate would have preempted "Entertainment Tonight's" highly rated post-Oscar coverage.

The television magazine's first show after the Academy Awards is consistently one of its highest rated episodes of the year. A Feb. 7 mayoral debate that aired live on KCAL-TV (Channel 9) drew an average audience of 182,000 viewers throughout the debate.

So as the five top mayoral contenders wrangled in a sound studio at CBS Television City on Monday evening, KCBS viewers were treated to "everything Oscar crammed into one hour." That included a critique of Julia Roberts' "hot new mama bod," diet secrets of the Oscar stars and the much-sought explanation for Melanie Griffith's cane. (She kicked a door and broke her foot.)

The debate's delayed broadcast is just the latest indignity to befall this year's mayoral contest, which has been overshadowed by mudslides, the Michael Jackson trial, the Grammys and the Oscars, among other events. On Sunday -- two days before the election -- the candidates will be forced to navigate the Los Angeles Marathon as they try to rouse their voters.

The campaigns were informed of the broadcast change Friday, and most took the news with resignation.

"I think you lose viewers when it's not live, but there's not much you can do about it," said Bill Carrick, campaign strategist for Mayor James K. Hahn. "L.A.'s a company town, and the town business is not politics."

When sister stations KCBS-TV and KCAL-TV announced in December that they were sponsoring two live mayoral debates with the Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, station executives touted the forums as demonstrations of their dedication to public discourse.

"In keeping with our ongoing commitment to being a leader in community service, we are pleased to be able to help the citizens of Los Angeles learn more about the candidates and issues surrounding the 2005 mayoral election," general manager Don Corsini had said in a statement.

The stations did not issue a news release explaining the decision to delay the broadcast, and Corsini did not return a call for comment.

KCBS spokesman Mike Nelson would not say whether the mayoral debate was bumped by "Entertainment Tonight."

"We've invested a lot of time and resources to serving the community," Nelson said. "We're going to air it. We had every intention of airing it live. Some things came up last week that caused us to make a change."

Instead, the debate aired on KFWB-AM (980) and Channel 2 webcast it on the Internet. The full 90-minute forum is scheduled to air on Channel 2 tonight at 6:30 p.m.

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Times staff writers Faye Fiore and Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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