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March 13, 1996

Dole's No-Show Muddied
Political Test of Webcast

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    Senator Bob Dole's last-minute no-show for a nationally televised debate among the Republican Presidential candidates in Dallas on Friday night put a damper on the on-line audience for the first primary debate broadcast in sound and images on the Internet.

    While about 35,000 people logged on to the Cityview home page, one of the debate Web sites, during a four-hour period on Friday, the debate's organizers said they did not know how many of them actually stuck around to watch the debate on line. The Cityview home page also contains information about entertainment events in Dallas, restaurants, and other events.

    Officials with AudioNet, the Internet broadcast company that handled the debate webcast, had expected an online audience of about 3,000 to 5,000 for the event. Mark Cuban, president of AudioNet, said that his company's home page received about 50,000 hits on Friday, but that only about 1,500 visitors actually stayed on line to hear and watch the debate. Even so, Cuban said on Tuesday that so many people had called up the debate in AudioNet's broadcast archives since Friday night that the total number of those who eventually watch the debate over the Internet could triple by the end of the week. "Dole had a lot to do with the smaller-than-expected on-line audience," Cuban said. "It became like, why are we here?"

    Fewer than 100 Internet users responded to an informal survey after the debate, a smaller number than had been expected. The survey asked Internet debate watchers to voluntarily respond to a series of questions and also gave them a "free form" space to comment.

    Most of the comments expressed disappointment that Dole had not participated in the debate, said Rick Starks, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the Dallas Morning News, one of the debate's sponsors.

    "A lot of them felt that Dole should have been here," Starks said.

    The commentator Patrick J Buchanan, the publisher Steve Forbes and the talk show host Alan Keyes did participate in the debate, which lacked electricity without Dole's presence. The candidates met in Dallas for their final face-off before Texas and five other states held primaries in this week's Super Tuesday election.

    The debate, as the largest international political webcast to date, had been expected to test the political potential of the Web. Other political organizations had hoped the event would attract a sizable audience and serve as a testing ground of sorts for other large political webcasts, including those planned for both parties' national conventions.

    But Dole's absence dampened the television viewing audience for the debate and left many empty seats in the live audience. His supporters also stayed away from the on-line debate, the survey showed.

    About 32 percent of the viewers on the Internet said they supported Buchanan, 8 percent supported Forbes, 40 percent supported Keyes and 12 percent supported "someone else," which included Dole. Eight percent said that they were undecided.

    About 68 percent of the respondents were male and 28 percent were female. Four percent didn't respond to the question.

    Despite Dole's absence, debate organizers said they were glad the debate had been broadcast on the Internet and added that they would probably try it again in the future.

    "This type of media, more and more, will be used to put on debates and other events like that," Starks said. "It was worth doing."

    Cuban, too, predicted that future debates, party conventions and other political events would increasingly use the Internet to reach a broader audience.

    "As we move closer to the elections, people can't be all over the country. They'll use the Internet to stay in touch." For example, Cuban said he expected a big on-line crowd to follow results of the Super Tuesday primaries. AudioNet planned to broadcast over the Internet live coverage from several radio stations in the six Super Tuesday states. In the end, the Internet may prove to be as big an asset for politicians as it is for voters, Cuban said: "It's a weapon and a tool a lot of them never had before to monitor in real time what's going on anywhere."

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