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Debate Coverage Gives CBS a Black Eye

Nearly 43 years ago, the Oakland Raiders were playing the New York Jets on a game televised on NBC. The Jets were winning at 7:00pm when a network operator switched over to the film Heidi as had been scheduled for the Eastern time zone.

In the few minutes after the switch occurred, the Raiders bounced back and pulled off a victory. Angry sports fans have referred to the matchup as the “Heidi Game” ever since.

Maybe we should call Saturday night’s GOP Presidential Debate on CBS the “NCIS Debate.”

That’s because the network bailed from live coverage of the 90-minute debate at the 60-minute mark. What’s worse, CBS decided to air a rerun of NCIS at 9:00pm.

Viewers of the debate were encouraged to go online and watch the remainder of the debate, but viewers who had an internet connection available complained that the feed was choppy.

A network spokeswoman explained that the livestream was overwhelmed by an unexpectedly large audience.

Why should it have been unexpected? It was a GOP debate that happened in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal involving one candidate, and that infamous “oops” moment that has drawn a lot of criticism and speculation about a second one.

CBS should have blocked off a full 90 minutes of programming for Saturday night, and should have then scheduled a rerun of one of its many hit sitcoms at 9:30pm. I suspect that they learned a valuable, if painful, lesson by the debacle.

Meanwhile, though, it was the CBS stations that took the brunt of the fire from angry viewers who had choice — and particularly unkind — words to say about it. Over my career, I’ve been associated, in one way or another, with four different television networks, and I’ve had the deepest association over those years with CBS. Their news division, despite its criticism, really does get it. I’m sure the switch-away from the debate was a programming decision, not a news decision; no news department would have advocated leaving the debate before it was done.

And no South Carolina television station would have switched away from this particular debate because it originated from South Carolina.

Viewer Backlash
Columbia’s CBS affiliate, WLTX, received this comment on its Facebook fan page:

“I am done with WLTX. Shame on you for not being prepared. And then tell me your General Manager is off. Pardon me, but ya’ll [sic] screwed up badly. GM should be there for damage control.”

I’d wager that within two weeks, you’ll see this same person adding a new comment about something she saw on WLTX. If I had a dollar for every viewer who claimed to have been “done” with a station I’ve worked for…well, you know where that’s going.

The apostrophe, by the way, goes after the y in “y’all,” because it means “you all.”

And as I’ve said before, if all you tell a television station — or any business, for that matter — that you’ll never be their customer again, what you’re really telling them is that it doesn’t matter what you think because you’ll never give them the chance to do better.

Thirty-two minutes later, incidentally, that general manager, whom I know personally, responded:

“Like you, I was surprised when Scott P. said some stations would carry the last 30 minutes. Well…those stations were the West Coast stations who were in local (not network) time. WLTX stayed on the CBS feed all the way….we were not offered the additional 30 minutes.”

Then there was this:

“Was watching debate with my 11yr old son, who is very interested in current events and this debate but then had to explain he couldn’t see the whole debate b/c WLTX had to show reruns of NCIS. He said “But isn’t a presidential debate more important?” Common sense from an 11yr old. No excuses please. Just R.i.d.c.u.l.o.u.s.”

Of course it was common sense. Local stations were more than aware of that. If they could have stayed with the coverage, they would have.

WSPA-TV, the CBS station in the market where the debate actually happened, received even angrier responses:

“I would have loved seein the rest of the debate last nite,not a rerun of NCIS and the live streaming wasnt working properly.They showed the rest of the debate in other parts of the country,So why the media -bias Are you trying to run off those who dont vote for democrats?We dont have to watch your station.Yea for the internet,we can fill our heads with other useless entertainment”

Another “I’ll never be back” claim:

“you can kiss my 30 years of viewership goodbye I will not support a liberal run station adios!”

And a bias accusation, just to keep things balanced:

“Well, we know who WSPA and CBS support in the next election!”

If any of these people had a Facebook fan page for their business, and an angry customer posted something like this on it, would anyone like to wager with me they wouldn’t delete the comment?

I’m sure most of these folks, even those who left particularly nasty comments, are, in real life, well-mannered people.

Except when their sitting at their computers.

How It Really Works
Picture a television station’s master control room as your remote control in your living room: CBS is one channel that you can switch to. When a station is in prime time, its master control has switched to its network “channel.” Even if it’s a commercial that the network airs, the station stays on that network line.

Then it’s time for a local commercial. The master control operator switches to a different channel to play the local commercials for two minutes, then switches back to the network channel.

When a local station airs a local newscast, they switch to another channel: the one from their own studio control room where the newscast is produced.

But all of the programs on that network channel occur on that one single channel. There’s another channel there that serves as a backup, but it’s still the same programming. It’s only there if the main channel goes off the air.

Get the idea so far?

Okay. When the debate was cut off at 9:00pm, the same network channel began airing NCIS. It wasn’t like the local station’s master control pressed a different button to air NCIS instead of the debate; the station stayed on the same network channel, and the network itself changed what it was showing.

And there’s no other channel you have clearance to watch with the rest of the debate that you can switch to. Yes, it really is that simple.

So what’s a local television station supposed to do about that?


  1. I found your explanation of how the telly programming works fascinating – an inside look into something I knew nothing about. I see more clearly how that works.

    I had heard about the “Heidi Game” in a Bathroom Reader book I have (well, I have them all, but you get what I mean). Since I am nearly 44, I had not actually experienced that. But it is a historically known blooper of the single worst kind especially if you are a sports fanatic and love the game – which moments after disappearing became the upset of the century – that nearly no one saw! My grandfather must’ve been HOWLING mad!

    I read this whole post and as always, I am delighted by the subject material, the writing, the perfect spelling and use of apostrophes and so on. However, I really found myself grounding my teeth in sheer screaming frustration at the number of people who 1. cannot write a decent sentence with spaces after the commas (good gods above, what IS that?!), no punctuation and terrible spelling – AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!! I need a Prozac RIGHT NOW. I should be mortified to have my name appended to anything so poorly written! And so should they but this is the lowest common denominator that I am constantly griping about.

    As for the up-in-arms folks have now sworn never to allow their remotes to alight on WLTX, you, Patrick, said it best, “I’d wager that within two weeks, you’ll see this same person adding a new comment about something she saw on WLTX. If I had a dollar for every viewer who claimed to have been “done” with a station I’ve worked for…well, you know where that’s going.” Indeed, we do!

    I loved the “Just R.i.d.c.u.l.o.u.s.” comment, funny, true to life and so much the truth.

    Sounds like television programming is not the true meaning of everything.

  2. Wow. I’m not a registered Republican and even I considered watching that debate! After the opps! gaffe and the recent poll surge of Newt Gingrich, I was actually curious enough that I would have tuned in had I been home.

    I’m really astonished that the network chose not to carry the entire debate. As you pointed out, that was a huge mistake on their part.

    I wasn’t totally aware of how programming works at a station but I presumed that a local station would have to air what the network gave them to air. Thanks for explaining it to us, though. I always wondered how that worked!

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.