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Guest Commentary: Free political time bomb

Apr 22, 2002  •  Post A Comment

As happens in every even-numbered year, a coalition has been announced to promote free television time for candidates during the coming primary and general election campaigns.
This year’s coalition is headed by Paul Simon, the former U.S. senator from Illinois, Thomas Kean, the former governor of New Jersey, Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchor, and Paul Taylor, formerly a political reporter for The Washington Post.
It is a noble idea with a noble purpose, but you don’t have to be a partisan of the greedy networks to see how the arithmetic alone makes free TV time for candidates an absurdity. It would be more obvious to more people except that everyone for or against the proposition assumes it involves only one election, the one for president.
Not a chance.
The United States is not Britain, which is the model news commentators and politicians use to advocate mandating free TV time. In Britain they have something called party political broadcast, each party getting time on the tube to make its pitch. At the same time, all paid television advertising is forbidden, for parties and candidates alike.
People who have spent time in Britain, such as Bill Clinton and Walter Cronkite, often come home advocating that we adopt this system. The former president called us the only Western democracy without this kind of arrangement.
Try that on your own congressman. Tell him that come election time, his TV exposure will be nicely taken care of in a few 10-minute policy statements made by his party or a couple of appearances by its candidate for president.
It may work where political parties are still important, countries such as France and Luxembourg, where they have prime ministers, not presidents, and national party headquarters picks the local candidates. In case no one notices, these also are one-time-zone countries.
The United States is a very federal country. “From sea to shining sea” is four time zones, even without Alaska or Hawaii. They tend to forget that in Washington. Each state has its own politics, even each congressional district. No one speaks for a candidate except the candidate, and if there is free time to be had, they want some.
If free time becomes law only for national elections, it will still have to apply to every congressional race; Congress will see to that. (And if the Federal Communications Commission tries to make an end run around Congress by writing a rule, Congress has ways of seeing to that too.)
This is where the arithmetic comes in.

Television stations reach many congressional districts. New York is the worst example, as you would expect. A VHF station in New York covers 43 congressional districts. In Los Angeles and Philadelphia, the number is 25, with 23 for Chicago, a dozen for Toledo, Ohio, six for Fresno, Calif., and so on. (Those are the latest figures I could find, and they’re a little old. But even if there have been changes, you get the idea.)
Any equitable system of providing candidates free time on television during an election campaign means every station must make room in its schedule for the presidential candidates, those running for the U.S. Senate and six or 12 or 25 or 43 congressional races. Take Flint, Mich., where stations cover 12 districts:
* Twenty minutes for each of two (or three or four) candidates for president. (You couldn’t expect a major policy statement in less.)
* Ten minutes for each of two candidates for Senate.
* Five minutes for each of two candidates in 12 districts.
A minimum of three hours’ free time. Once during the campaign? Hardly enough. Once a week? Once a month? In prime time, of course. In Los Angeles, a round of candidates’ free time would take six hours, in New York nine.
In a highly competitive business, it is hard to think of a better way of raising the other guy’s ratings than three or six or nine prime-time hours of politicians saying how they would fix things.
And that’s just the election campaign. How about the primaries? At least double. Most primaries have more than two candidates duking it out. Up to six or eight. Some of them get called “frivolous” candidates and others “perennial,” but they are legally qualified, so who is to say they are less entitled to free time than the others?
Also, once free TV time is available, candidates will start coming out of the woodwork. Every American is dying to get on television, and making people listen to your recipe for a better tomorrow is more fun than dialing up a call-in show or telling your troubles to Oprah.
Until, finally, there will be no other television at all, only candidates telling voters what they would do if elected. Nor does free time keep them, at least this year, from placing those nasty 30-second attack ads to besmirch their opponents the way political consultants think television was made for. Except that there may not be any programs to put those negative commercials into. All the time will be taken up by candidates making statements.