DALLAS – The presidential race is tight. Interest in its TV debates runs high – on the left and on the right.

So why schedule one on an out-and-about Friday night?

Tonight’s face-off between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry will be the first Friday night debate since Oct. 22, 1976, when 62.7 million viewers saw President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter duel for the third time on national TV. Its competition includes thousands of high school football games across the land, various forms of TGIF nightlife and opening night of the high school football movie “Friday Night Lights.”

Not surprisingly, Friday attracts the second smallest prime-time audience of the week, with only Saturday slightly lower, according to Nielsen Media Research.

And the Friday night Ford-Carter encounter, which drew 7 million fewer viewers than their first face-off that year, held the record for least-watched debate until Oct. 11, 1992, when it was edged by the first of three match-ups among President George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

One media expert said Friday night may not be hazardous to healthy ratings for the “town hall” match-up between the president and Kerry.

Many people get home from work earlier on Fridays and can sleep later on Saturday after staying up to watch the debate, said Paul Levinson, chairman of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.

“It may wind up attracting a bigger audience than a weekday debate, even though there are football games and other things. So actually, I’m in favor of it.”

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