If a tree fell during a gubernatorial debate, few people might see it happen. But meaningful developments during little-watched political events nonetheless have a way of redefining conventional wisdom and ultimately taking root in public consciousness.
Take Thursday night's raucous debate at Morgan State University, held by many commentators to benefit Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. The Democrat had lost momentum and, according to polls, support throughout much of the summer against Baltimore County's Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican nominee.
Yet the pivotal question facing most television viewers last night was on NBC's Friends: Would Rachel accept a marriage proposal from Joey or Ross?
No major television station in the state broadcast the NAACP-sponsored debate live. Instead, it was carried by the Baltimore region's dominant cable provider, Comcast, on CN8, a Philadelphia-based cable news station. The debate was shown on tape delay by Maryland Public Television and WBFF-TV shortly after the debate's conclusion at 10:30 p.m. WBAL-TV aired the event after the Tonight Show, at 12:37 a.m.
MPT's decision not to air the debate live hinged on money. The event was open to MPT's cameras, but broadcasting the show from a remote location, such as Morgan State's campus, would have cost the state system $20,000 to $30,000. Executives decided that was too much to spend one month after laying off 14 percent of the work force. Comcast, which split the cost with NewsChannel 8 in the Washington area, made its signal available to others only after the conclusion of the event.
"It's much less expensive to broadcast it from our own studios," said Larry D. Unger, executive vice president and chief financial officer at MPT. "This was the best that we could do." MPT officials have made an offer with WBAL-TV to both camps to hold a candidate forum for a full hour on the Saturday before Election Day, but no deal has been struck.
Relatively few people among Maryland's 5.3 million residents saw the debate, but it was difficult yesterday to gauge the precise figure.
In the Baltimore area, an average of 30,000 households were tuned into CN8 for each 15 minutes of the debate. For the tape delay, 47,000 households turned in to WBFF, 46,000 to WBAL-TV and about 25,000 to MPT. Those Nielsen Media Research figures do not make clear how many distinct households caught even a portion of the debate, nor do they indicate how many people in all saw it. It was also impossible yesterday to know how many families were such political junkies that they tuned in to more than one broadcast of the debate.
In the Washington area, a little more than 10,000 households watched the program on NewsChannel 8 and MPT. In parts of the state without Comcast, or for those without cable television, viewers would have had to stay up past midnight to watch the entire broadcast.
None of this fundamentally matters, several observers say. Debates on the state level, even for close races, typically draw modest audiences, says Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Instead, it's reported on by the print media, picked up by editorialists, ministers in the pulpit and talk radio show hosts, and then absorbed into the cultural mainstream.
It took several days for the media to conclude that John F. Kennedy had bested Richard M. Nixon during the first debate of 1960, for example. "It's almost a metaphysical process," Baker says. "It deals with opinion leaders - the people who watch, transmit and interpret, who crack the code, for those who didn't watch."
And media commentators, those likely to be talking about the race in print and on the air, found that Townsend's vigorous assault on Ehrlich's record wildly exceeded the minuscule expectations they had set for her.
"It was inconceivable to me before the debate that she could do that," says Chip Franklin, the WBAL-AM talk show host who is sometimes a critic of Townsend and her political patron, Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "I was impressed with the style, [though] not the substance."
After Thursday's debate, Marc Steiner, a liberal moderator of the show that bears his name on WYPR-FM, now says he believes Townsend is getting her act together, and plans on talking about the exchanges with Ehrlich on his program.
In the end, it is such talk shows or articles in local newspapers throughout the state that will help set the terms of political discourse, argues Blair Lee IV, a political commentator for the Montgomery Journal.
He cites a "golden 5,000" who track politics daily. "People who play politics on an every day basis - the politicians or lobbyists or media or influence peddlers - they frame the controversy and shape the campaign.
"And then, about 10 days before the election, the great unwashed stirs," he says. "There's an election coming? Who's running?"