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The Belo guv debate: Self-serving or public service?

Are the powerbrokers at Belo Corp. playing monopoly with Friday night's one and only televised Texas gubernatorial debate?

Well, they're certainly playing hardball. But from this view, the bigger problems are the night, the format and the on-air exclusion of anyone not employed by Belo.

Here's the gist of "Belo's Rules for the Gubernatorial Debate," a document sent to various news outlets with an interest in the four-way face-off among Republican Gov. Rick Perry, Democrat Chris Bell and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman:

1. No non-Belo stations in "Belo markets" (Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Austin) will be allowed to carry the debate live.
2. TV stations outside these markets can air the debate live, but can't stream it on their Web sites.
3. Spanish-language and PBS stations in Belo markets cannot carry the debate live, but can rebroadcast it later within a four-day window that will close at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
4. Radio stations in and outside Belo markets can air the debate live, but can't stream it on their Web sites.
5. All TV stations in Texas can air segments from the debate on their late night Friday newscasts.

This isn't the way it used to be done, although in practice not much will change in terms of the debate's overall TV and radio exposure. In recent years, gubernatorial debates were brokered by a consortium of Belo, PBS TV stations, the Texas Association of Broadcasters, the Texas State Radio Networks and Texas Monthly. That was the game plan again this year, with Thursday, Oct. 5 the original target date.

Then Belo stepped in and agreed to Perry's insistence that there be one debate only, and that it be scheduled on the eve of Saturday's Texas-Oklahoma game. Frankly, there's no use in having a debate without Perry, so he can pretty much call the tune.

Let's be honest. Even if Belo's rules permitted, rival broadcast stations would have next to no interest in preempting network entertainment programming for a Texas governor's debate. And anyone who wants to watch Perry et. al. instead of Ghost Whisperer presumably will have an opportunity to do so, either on live TV or on Belo-owned Web sites. It's not a perfect situation, but it's good enough for government work. In this case, that's doubly so.

Here are the potential pitfalls, though. First, it's a lousy night and time. Many potential viewers are still out and about at 7 p.m. on a Friday. Texas-OU weekend further drains the audience pool.

Belo also is relying solely on Belo-ites to both question the candidates and keep them in line during the one-hour debate. The corporation's four Texas TV properties are represented by moderator Greg Hurst (Houston's KHOU) and questioners John McCaa (Dallas' WFAA), Sarah Lucero (San Antonio's KENS) and Christine Haas (Austin's KVUE). The lone print interloper is easily the most knowledgeable participant. Veteran Austin bureau chief Wayne Slater of Belo's The Dallas Morning News knows Texas politics through and through.

McCaa is a quality anchor, but his slot should have been given to Brad Watson, the guy in the campaign trenches for Belo8. Hurst, Lucero and Haas are all anchors, too. Do they really know the ins and outs of the governor's race better than their respective stations' field reporters, who perhaps aren't as pretty?

One more thing: There's no slot this time for Texas Monthly's hard-hitting political junkie, Paul Burka. He doesn't work for Belo, so tough luck for him.

Oh well, it's a done deal, and we'll see how Friday's Belo-centric event plays out. For an objective review, check out unclebarky.com on Saturday morn.