Bishop Douglas I. Miles has lately been preaching a little something extra to his congregants at Koinonia Baptist Church in Northeast Baltimore - the gospel of tuning in to the presidential debates.
His congregation listened - as did many others in the Baltimore area, where ratings collectively were the highest in the country for the first two presidential debates and the vice presidential debate. The third presidential debate between Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain airs at 9 o'clock tonight from Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y.
"Parents and grandparents want their children and grandchildren to be witness to this historic event in the lives of the African-American community and America," Miles said. "Every family should be paying attention."
Baltimore ranked third in viewership for the first debate, first for the vice presidential showdown and third for the most recent presidential debate - far outpacing even the nation's steeped-in-politics capital 40 miles down the parkway. That's a marked change from the 2004 race, when Baltimore did not finish in the top 10 TV markets for any debate.
In other markets where black households make up more than one-quarter of all TV homes, viewership for the recent debates was also among the strongest in the country - in metro areas including Memphis, Tenn.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Norfolk and the Richmond, Va., area.
Black viewers compelled by Obama's candidacy are being drawn to national politics in a way not seen since the civil rights movement, several analysts said. In Baltimore, other factors could be at play, they said, such as the concentration of colleges, including historically black Coppin State and Morgan State universities.
"The reason, of course, is Barack Obama, who has made it possible for African-Americans to hope again," said Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, who specializes in the study of media, pop culture and African-American families. "Many African-Americans, and I am one of them, did not expect to see this in our lifetimes, an African-American who could be president, and you are not going miss any chance to see him on television."
Among the Top 30 TV markets in the country, Baltimore has the second-highest percentage of black viewers at 27.1 percent. But for the three debates, Nielsen figures show the black audience tracked higher than that, at about 38 percent of all viewers.
Because of its large percentage of black households, the Baltimore area became known in the TV industry in the 1990s as part of the "Cosby Belt." The Cosby Show was a huge hit most everywhere, but scored exceptionally high ratings in Baltimore and cities demographically like it.
"When you look at the ratings for the debates, the large number of black households in the market would have to be a major factor," says Emerson Coleman, vice president of programming for Hearst-Argyle, which owns WBAL-Channel 11 in Baltimore.
The debates are captivating people of all colors and creating newfound political junkies who are watching together at movie theaters, bars, churches, college dorms, restaurants and in private homes.
"Baltimore has a history of very strong African-American involvement and concern about political literacy, and those ratings are an outgrowth of the fact that while we as a state don't have a lot of electoral votes, we as a city are very concerned and want to be involved in the issues at hand," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Baltimore's Bethel AME Church, which is hosting a viewing party tonight. "It's not just a pro-Obama issue, it's an information issue."
In the city's Hollins Market neighborhood, the owners of Zella's decided to put the little pizzeria's single television to good use during the first debate. They alerted 500 people on their e-mail list that they would be showing the debate there. About 40 showed up to watch and sip Obama-tinis and McCain-tinis.
"I am close with many people in my community and speaking to the regulars, I can say this is something that's very important to them," Zella's owner Julie Ernst said. During the first debate, the pizzeria was also deluged with calls for pizzas, with almost every home they delivered to watching the debate.
Before the second presidential faceoff, an Obama supporter called the Charles Theatre, whose owner is also an Obama supporter, and convinced him to donate a screen for a viewing party.
When more than 150 people showed up with little more than word-of-mouth notice, the Charles decided to give tonight's debate-watchers the larger, 400-seat theater.
The keen interest "is quite a phenomenon," says Lipika Samal, a 29-year-old Fells Point doctor who's organizing the event, which is free and open to both Obama and McCain supporters. "I feel like people are much more in tune and excited with this election. It really sounds corny, but they actually have hope there could be some massive change this time around."
McCain supporters have gathered for each debate in different restaurants in Baltimore County. Walter Hayes, who has been organizing viewing parties, expects a big crowd at Bacoli Delight in Essex tonight. Still, he's surprised that Baltimore, a solidly "blue" city in a "blue" state, has tipped the ratings charts so aggressively.
"You would think more interest in an Ohio or a Virginia or in a dozen other states that are more in play," he said. "I figured we'd be interested, but I didn't think we'd be the most interested."
At the Johns Hopkins University, student Democrat and Republican organizations joined with a group called JHU Votes to organize viewing parties at a lounge in one of the dorms. More than 100 students turned out for the first one, which came with free ice cream for anyone who registered to vote or was already registered. Another is planned tonight.
At Morgan State, interest in the debates and the election in general is also hot, said Clarissa Higgins, a senior and editor of The Spokesman, the campus newspaper.
"It's history, and it's so powerful that it's not enough just that you see it," says Clarence M. Mitchell IV, a former state senator who now hosts an afternoon talk show on WBAL radio. "You make sure that your children watch TV and see it with you."
McCain sibling blasts campaign. PG 15
blogs on debate at baltimoresun.com/zontv
TV: Coverage of tonight's debate begins at 9 o'clock on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, FNC, CNBC and MSNBC