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Broadcasters stymie discount political spots

Feb 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The broadcast lobby has slain its fiercest election reform dragon but left some small dragons unscathed.
The National Association of Broadcasters’ battle last week to kill language in the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill that forced television stations to sell political ad time at rock-bottom rates is now legendary.
NAB won by a 3 to 1 margin.
Lost amid the politicking, however, is this reality: The association is unhappy about a few other provisions but will live with them because its beast is dead.
The ad language was NAB’s costliest threat, potentially amounting to tens of millions of dollars in lost ad revenue. To defeat it, NAB zeroed in on the issue and didn’t pick fights over ancillary concerns.
As a result, broadcasters didn’t oppose a requirement that corporations, unions and advocacy groups stop running ads mentioning candidates by name 60 days before elections or 30 days before primaries. And it didn’t cry foul that the bill’s ban on unregulated soft-money contributions to the national political parties would mean they’d have less money to run ads, reducing station revenue by millions of dollars.
A silver lining for broadcasters is that those requirements don’t take effect until after the 2002 midterm elections and could be changed or overturned in court, assuming the bill is enacted.
In addition, the bill increases the limit on regulated hard-money donations to candidates and parties, meaning there will be more hard money for TV ads, offsetting some ad losses from the soft-money reductions. The investment firm Bear, Stearns & Co. thinks the bill is mostly a victory for broadcasters and that they’ll face only a 1 percent or less net decrease in ad revenue during the 2004 presidential election year.
The firm estimates there has been a 168 percent increase in political advertising on television in the past eight years, from $226 million in the 1992 presidential campaign to $605 million in the 2000 campaign.
“Estimates as high as $825 million exist for the local television stations in 2000, implying 265 percent growth from 1992 to 2000,” the firm said in a report issued last week.
At deadline, the measure was slated for a Senate vote, where it faces a filibuster threat. Senate Commerce Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who previously opposed campaign reform, will support it this time and will vote against a filibuster.
The ad rate language, authored by Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., was included in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill passed by the upper chamber last year.
Federal candidates buying TV ads already pay about 30 percent less than other advertisers-the discounts would have been doubled under the bill, NAB estimates.
Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas; Rep. Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.; and Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offered the amendment to strike the reductions. Rep. Dingell and other critics said reducing ad rates would spawn more political spots and force local advertisers and TV stations to subsidize them. But supporters said the language was needed to curb skyrocketing campaign costs.