More than two-thirds of the Senate last week backed a proposal requiring television stations to offer politicians rock-bottom rates for political ads, setting the stage for a possible compromise over free airtime.
The National Association of Broadcasters strongly opposes the measure, which was attached to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill by an overwhelming margin of 70 to 30.
“The Senate has voted itself a multimillion-dollar windfall. The Torricelli amendment will not reduce the cost of campaigns, but rather will unleash a torrent of negative attack ads. Only in Washington can this be called reform,” NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts said.
But some free-airtime supporters welcomed the amendment as a step in the right direction. “I think the Torricelli amendment is a good thing,” said Paul Taylor, executive director of the watchdog Alliance for Better Campaigns, adding that a free-time mandate would be even better.
The measure was crafted by New Jersey Democratic Sens. Robert Torricelli and Jon Corzine.
Under existing law, TV stations must make ad time available to politicians at lowest unit charges. But station ad rates vary, depending on the time of year and daypart.
As a result, some stations charge lowest unit rates during campaign season that are higher than their lowest charges at slow times of the year.
The amendment mandates that stations offer politicians the absolute cheapest rate they’ve offered over the past 365 days for a particular spot.
It also closes a loophole that lets stations pre-empt political ads-as long as they air sometime the same day-if other entities agree to pay more for the time slots.
The pre-emptions have forced some politicians to buy ads at higher rates to guarantee they air in prime time and won’t be relegated to the wee hours of the morning.
Debate on McCain-Feingold is expected to continue at least through this week, with the outcome of the bill and the Torricelli amendment unclear.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won’t add the separate free airtime bill he is drafting to his campaign finance measure. That’s because free time is such a controversial idea it might kill the campaign finance bill.
As of Friday, it was uncertain whether any other lawmakers might step forward with free-airtime amendments, but the NAB wasn’t taking any chances.
In a letter last week to senators, it urged lawmakers to oppose discounted rates and free time, warning that reduced rates are the “slippery slope” to mandatory free airtime and will result in a “bureaucratic and organizational nightmare.”
The Senate’s passage of the Torricelli amendment was a major blow to broadcasters, who tend to win most of their battles on Capitol Hill.
“Most of us feel that we already charge the lowest unit rate. This was piling on,” said an industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Nevertheless, the amendment is a far cry from becoming law, given that the Senate is still debating campaign finance reform and the House has yet to act.
Another source argued that the Torricelli approach is better for politicians than free airtime because candidates could buy more ads without the hassles of free-time restrictions, such as the need to debate opponents or answer tough questions from journalists.
Among the measure’s supporters was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who said it would help to end the “money chase” that corrupts the political process. “I think it is not only fair but long overdue,” she said.
Among its opponents was Senate communications subcommittee Chairman Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
“How many other industries are we asking to lower their rates on the services they perform for the sake of political activity?” Sen. Burns asked rhetorically. He said it’s unfair for Congress to meddle in the pricing decisions of TV stations.
Also last week, the Senate adopted by a voice vote an amendment offered by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that requires political ads to include a “clearly identifiable” photo of a candidate that appears for at least four seconds.
Political ads on the radio must include statements by candidates in which they declare their approval of the spots. The measure is intended to dissuade politicians from running so-called “stealth” attack ads that don’t disclose their involvement.