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TV Stations Tune Out Free Air Time for Political Candidates

Elections: With broadcasters expecting $600 million for campaign ads, public service movement is foundering.


The argument is as old as the earliest days of radio: If broadcasters would just offer free air time to political candidates, the result would be a more informed and discerning electorate.

That theory didn't fly in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but now it's being revived by public interest groups that say TV stations should set aside more time for candidates to speak directly to voters. Even former presidents Carter and Ford and broadcast legend Walter Cronkite have joined the cause.

But the movement to provide air time for candidates will likely founder again, sunk in large part by the television industry's powerful lobbying outfit, the National Assn. of Broadcasters. And as the NAB pushes Congress to tune out the idea of mandating free time, television stations are profiting from an explosion in political advertising.

Stations expect to earn a record $600 million this year by selling air time to federal, state and local candidates and advocacy groups. That's nearly a 50% increase from their 1996 take, and double the sum from 1992.

Ads a Boon to TV Stations' Profits

Political ads are expected to generate 9.2% of a typical TV station's revenue this year, up from 3.2% in 1992, according to a recent report by the Wall Street firm Bear, Stearns & Co. As an advertising category, political ads were the third-largest source of revenue in 1998, generating TV stations more money than fast food, phone companies or movie studios.

The profusion of political advertising, Cronkite and others argue, is exactly why free air time is needed. The term "free air time," however, is a bit of a misnomer because its advocates are not calling on broadcasters to donate time so candidates can air more slick ads.

Rather, they're prodding the stations to set aside more time, which the stations would control, for "candidate-centered discourse," such as debates, extended interviews or news reports.

Offering that free exposure to local, state and federal candidates would compel them to explain their policy positions directly to voters, its advocates say. What's more, it would level the field for challengers taking on better-financed incumbents and elevate the tone of the nation's political debates.

A White House panel of broadcasters and good-government groups has called on stations to air five minutes per night of such discourse for the 30 nights preceding an election. So far, only about two dozen of the nation's 1,400 stations have pledged to meet the panel's recommendation.

Since the panel's report, the Federal Communications Commission has, for the first time, opened a formal study of the issue.

Two weeks ago, the NAB filed papers vigorously resisting the idea, saying it's unconstitutional for the government to dictate what stations put on the air. Even the stations that voluntarily offer air time to candidates say mandating it would hand over control of the nightly news to bureaucrats.

But a mandate for free time is exactly what more than a dozen good-government groups--led by former Washington Post political reporter Paul Taylor--are seeking from the FCC.

"Free air time is not a panacea, but it would be a help," said Taylor, who heads the Alliance for Better Campaigns. But "there is a fairly deep economic incentive for the broadcasters to maintain the status quo."

One intent of providing more time is to reduce the amount candidates spend buying commercial slots, and in the process reduce the pressure on candidates to raise money from private interests.

But even reformers concede that candidates, if provided free air time, still might raise the same sums and spend the money on mailers or other expenses. And money will continue to flood the political process regardless of whether candidates have free time, opponents note, because of spending by advocacy groups, which accounted for an estimated 44% of the political ad dollars spent in 1996.

Taylor's previous efforts have led almost nowhere in Washington, where the broadcasters' lobby has a long record as a Capitol Hill powerhouse. Eddie O. Fritts, the NAB's president, attended Ole Miss with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who opposes mandating free time. In late 1997, Lott refused to allow debate on Sen. John McCain's campaign finance bill until the Arizona Republican dropped a provision calling for free candidate time.

Weeks later, McCain and Democrats like Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan warned the FCC not to push broadcasters to offer free time. McCain and Dingell said it was for Congress, not a regulatory agency, to decide the issue.

Congressional lawmakers from both parties have enjoyed the support of broadcasters.

In the 1995-96 election cycle, 58 television executives from the nation's largest broadcasters gave more than $397,000 to congressional and presidential candidates as well as the parties, says the watchdog group Common Cause.

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