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Editorial: McCain’s push to tax spectrum a serious threat

Jun 10, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Broadcasters breathed a sigh of relief earlier this year when John McCain finally got his campaign finance reform bill passed. In the finished version of the legislation, the Republican senator from Arizona abandoned a measure that would have required TV stations to provide free airtime to political candidates-an issue that had rallied opposition to his campaign reform initiative, particularly from the powerful National Association of Broadcasters.
But Sen. McCain, a persistent media critic, was far from finished. On June 19, he will formally roll out new legislation seeking free political ads, funded by a tax on digital spectrum at a cost to broadcasters estimated initially at $640 million every two years. The measure also would require stations to provide a hefty chunk of free discussion time for candidates before elections.
Free airtime has been a tough sell on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are traditionally slow to get behind legislation that would erode the incumbent’s advantage by giving more exposure to potential challengers. And with the NAB digging in to again fight tooth and nail, most observers give the new legislation little chance of succeeding.
But broadcasters should continue to pay attention to Sen. McCain, whose bitterness toward the media is not entirely unfounded. High on his list of complaints, along with television’s unenthusiastic attitude toward election coverage, is the lack of urgency broadcasters have shown toward completing the digital transition.
Sen. McCain was one of only a handful of lawmakers who fought the government’s $70 billion giveaway of digital spectrum to TV stations in the late 1990s, a move that was supposed to jump-start the transition to digital TV. He has remained upset ever since about broadcasters’ free use of the spectrum, and as the transition drags on, his frustration grows.
With his new bill, he takes on both of his pet peeves-spectrum use and political ads. And even though the spectrum tax initially faces the same uphill fight as free airtime, broadcasters should take the threat seriously. In the worst-case scenario, the spectrum tax idea could take on a life of its own in Washington and could be used to pressure broadcasters on any number of issues.
The bottom line is the same as it always is: The industry needs to stay on its toes and do what it can to minimize government pressure. It’s always preferable for television to clean up its act voluntarily rather than wait for lawmakers and regulators to force the issue. Broadcasters would be wise to move toward more responsible election coverage and to get serious about converting to digital.
Meanwhile, they should keep the pressure on Congress to prevent the spectrum tax from gaining traction.