NEW YORK -- Anger at ABC News over the approach its moderators took in this week's Democratic debate continued to spill forth online Friday, with many people writing that they will no longer watch the network's newscasts.
The fierce criticism of the questions posed by moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos to Sen. Barack Obama comes as ABC's "World News With Charles Gibson" has been locked in a tight race with "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" to be the top-rated network evening newscast.
Whether the controversy will dampen viewership of ABC News' flagship broadcast remains to be seen. But in many of the 20,000-plus comments posted on ABCNews.com, viewers said the tone of the debate undermined ABC's credibility and soured them on the network.
"I can't trust that you could ever deliver a fair and balanced news story after the debate," read one comment posted Friday morning. "My choice will be to tune in elsewhere."
Jon Banner, executive producer of "World News," said he did not think the heated reaction would affect viewership of the broadcast.
"There are a lot of things that go into the performance and the ratings of the evening newscasts," he said. "We will continue to cover this election from a position of strength. I would venture to say that our political coverage is the best in the business.
"It's a free country," he added. "If people want to stop watching, they'll stop watching. But I'm hopeful they'll stick with us."
The criticism began shortly after Wednesday's 90-minute debate in Philadelphia, the first half of which was dominated by questions to Obama about his electability. Among other matters, Gibson and Stephanopoulos pressed the candidate about incendiary remarks made by his onetime pastor and about Obama's association with a 1960s radical.
Many media critics disparaged the debate's focus, and supporters of the Illinois senator decried the line of questioning as trivial and irrelevant. ABC News' website was immediately bombarded with posts complaining about the tone. Comments kept pouring in Friday.
"This was tabloid TV at best, not what I expected from ABC or Charlie Gibson," wrote one. "Some of us actually live in the real world and care much more about real issues like food and gas prices, losing our health care, etc., not what someone said in church or 40 years ago."
"This was a sad day for ABC," read another post. "It was my last time to consider watching ABC evening news. . . . Peter Jennings would have NEVER done this."
Executives on rival broadcasts said that it was difficult to know how much of an effect the debate would have on the audience but that they would not be surprised if viewing patterns shifted.
"There are a lot of factors as to why people watch any of these broadcasts, but one of them is getting to know the anchor as a person," said Alexandra Wallace, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News." "It's not just what they do between 6:30 and 7."
Said Rick Kaplan, executive producer of "CBS Evening News": "It's never a good idea to irritate the audience."
As a former ABC producer, Kaplan said that, on a personal level, he hopes the controversy does not hurt Gibson, whom he called "a great journalist and a great person."
But as the producer of a competitive program, Kaplan acknowledged thinking that the reaction could give CBS an opening.
"Maybe it gives me a chance to attract some of those viewers if they go hunting," he said.
The controversy comes at a key juncture in the evening news race. Though the public spotlight has recently been focused on the question of whether Katie Couric will leave the third-place CBS broadcast, ABC and NBC have been tussling for the top spot.
Toward the end of last season, the Gibson-helmed "World News" pulled ahead in the ratings and won the most viewers in the key 25-to-54-year-old demographic for the year. ("NBC Nightly News" still drew the largest audience overall.)
The two newscasts traded victories for much of the fall, but since November, Williams has pulled ahead, winning 17 of the last 23 weeks.
So far this season, NBC is in the lead with an average of 8.96 million viewers, while ABC has drawn 8.75 million and CBS has averaged 6.6 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. But ABC has maintained a slight advantage with younger viewers, pulling in 2.71 million to NBC's 2.69 million.