Demand for free airtime could overwhelm stations

Jun 24, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Free airtime legislation announced last week by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would impact broadcasters unevenly, leaving some potentially overwhelmed with requests to run political ads.
The measure doesn’t offer relief, for example, to television and radio stations in large markets such as New York and Los Angeles that could be forced to provide free commercials to dozens of candidates.
“The math just simply doesn’t work,” said California Broadcasters Association President and CEO Stan Statham.
In the Los Angeles basin, he said, broadcasters would have to accommodate 25 congressional members, two U.S. senators, their challengers and the political parties, who could dole free time vouchers out to state, gubernatorial and presidential candidates.
That could amount to free time for more than 75 congressional candidates alone in an election season, he said.
Broadcasters, insisting they already offer sufficient political coverage, are lobbying Congress to kill the measure. The industry is also angry that the measure imposes a hefty spectrum tax on stations to finance the effort.
In an interview with Electronic Media, Sen. McCain said he didn’t think broadcasters or viewers would be inundated with ads.
“We would obviously be glad to take in consideration any undue burden on a television station, but that doesn’t seem to be the major problem today.”
The senator thinks the legislation is necessary because recent studies indicate that TV and radio are devoting less and less time to covering campaigns, and many political debates never get aired.
A report last month by the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of American Electorate concluded that nearly two-thirds of political debates in 2000 for governor and Congress were not televised.
Of the 152 debates in 10 states that the authors examined, only 56-or 37 percent-were carried on TV, and only 28-or 18 percent-were televised by network affiliates.
“The picture that emerges is one of a handful of broadcast outlets attempting to perform, at least minimally, their public service obligations, while the overwhelming majority of broadcast outlets pursue maximum profit at the expense of the citizenry,” the report concluded.
Sen. McCain also thinks the bill would end the money chase that dissuades some challengers from entering races because they don’t have the resources to buy TV time.
Nevertheless, the measure would be a windfall for wealthy candidates, who could purchase millions of dollars of broadcast ads on top of their free spots.
Paul Taylor, president of the watchdog Alliance for Better Campaigns and a shaper of the legislation, said the bill would reduce demand for political ads by requiring stations to offer two hours a week of political discourse during the month before an election.
“That reduces the demand-the insatiable demand-for these advertisements. It doesn’t eliminate it, but it changes the whole topography of campaign communications,” he said.
But there’s nothing in the legislation, Sen. McCain conceded, to stop a candidate with deep pockets from supplementing his or her free ads with paid ones.
Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., a sponsor of the bill, said it’s impossible to restrict candidates from purchasing more spots. “You could not write such a law that would be conceivably constitutional,” he said.
The measure was supposed to be introduced June 19, but Sen. McCain said it’s been delayed while final details are worked out.
Other backers are Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass.
While the bill is expected to meet resistance from many lawmakers, it received endorsements from several watchdog and other groups, including the AARP, AFL-CIO and Sierra Club.
Sen. McCain vowed to fight hard for passage and noted that though it took him seven years, he got campaign finance reform legislation passed despite fierce opposition.