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Only FCC Members Get These Phone Ads

February 15, 2003|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In Los Angeles, you know you've made it big when you're on a first-name basis with Michael Eisner. In New York, it's when you're sitting next to Spike Lee at a Knicks game in Madison Square Garden.

And in the nation's capital, it's when big companies spend millions of dollars on television ads just for you.

By those standards, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell has arrived, as he discovered one recent evening. "I was sitting in bed with my wife the other day and telling her, 'This is like having my own commercial,' " Powell said.

One company that is seeking his attention is SBC Communications Inc., California's largest local phone company. SBC is lobbying hard to convince Powell and the four other FCC commissioners to throw out rules that require it to lease parts of its network to rivals. SBC and the other Baby Bells say they're losing money on those leases.

Meanwhile, SBC rivals such as AT&T Corp. and WorldCom Inc. are fighting back with their own ad campaign.

The commercials are broadcast in about a dozen key markets, but nearly all of the airtime is inside the Beltway.

Spiked with accusations that are cryptic and lacking in context, the ads leave even the most seasoned policy wonks scratching their heads.

"Other than me, nobody understands a word they are saying," Powell said.

Washington, of course, is no stranger to issue-oriented advertising battles.

In 2001, more than 300 organizations spent $45 million on advocacy television commercials seeking congressional action on everything from health-care reform to energy conservation, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center's Washington office.

But rarely have groups used TV ads to target such a small audience and present such complex, technical issues.

Together, SBC and Voices for Choices -- the coalition led by AT&T and WorldCom -- have poured more than $2 million into their ads. The spartan commercials lack well-known actors, fancy special effects or memorable slogans. They rarely bother to explain themselves to viewers.

One ad by Voices for Choices, for example, exhorts the FCC to "preserve competition" but neglects to say how. Another, from SBC, quotes an AT&T executive, without explaining why.

"These are not the kind of ads designed to make sense to someone watching them in a sports bar," said Bill McCloskey, a spokesman for BellSouth Corp., the Atlanta-based Baby Bell that's staying out of the ad wars but stands to gain from an FCC move to eliminate regulation.

Still, SBC and Voices for Choices hope their ads resonate beyond the five FCC commissioners, at least a little. It would be nice if some of the 365 members of Congress also paid attention, said Peter Arnold, a Voices for Choices spokesman.

"We hope they see them," he said.

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