McCain bill offers politicians free ads

Jun 3, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Two longtime archrivals will throw knockout punches this month in what promises to be the biggest card of the summer.
Tyson vs. Lewis? Not quite. Try McCain vs. Broadcasters, a fight that will last longer and, given the way Washington works, could be much uglier.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., plans to broadside television and radio stations June 19 with legislation requiring them to offer free political airtime and pay billions to finance it.
Early drafts set the price tag for broadcasters at $640 million every two years, but that figure could change in the final version.
The bill also requires stations to provide free discussion time for candidates before elections, possibly two hours a week for up to a month and a half.
Meanwhile, the senator is keeping close tabs on the TV industry’s problematic transition to digital and has threatened to introduce a separate bill on that issue if stations don’t make better progress.
The scrappy lawmaker, the ranking member on the influential Senate Commerce Committee, has never been popular with broadcasters. He was among the few to oppose the government’s giveaway of an estimated $70 billion worth of digital spectrum to them. To this day he’s still bitter.,
“I’ll continue to talk about their duplicity on this issue,” he said of TV stations in a recent interview. He insists they never intended to comply with the government’s transition schedule.
But taking on the industry is not easy, even for a war hero such as Sen. McCain.
“The fact is the National Association of Broadcasters remains the most powerful lobby in Washington,” he told Electronic Media.
NAB is expected to fight hard against the bill, which is likely to meet sharp resistance from some key lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., a close friend of NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts.
Most lawmakers oppose free airtime because it would provide their challengers with more exposure.
While it’s doubtful the bill will pass this year, the danger for broadcasters is that the spectrum fee idea will gain traction on Capitol Hill.
“This is an idea that may unite the left and the right,” a source said.
The Bush administration already wants to impose a spectrum tax on broadcasters that hold their analog spectrum beyond a 2006 deadline for returning the frequencies to the government.
Sen. McCain has time on his side. His supporters note that it took years for him to pass campaign finance reform legislation, but he finally achieved that goal this year. He dropped free-time provisions from that effort because they’re so controversial.
The lawmaker has teamed with think tanks and watchdogs, including the Alliance for Better Campaigns, to craft his bill, which he will announce at a June 19 briefing.
The measure works like this: U.S. Senate and House candidates would receive vouchers to purchase airtime at reduced rates. The political parties also would get vouchers, which could be given to presidential, state and gubernatorial candidates to buy airtime.
Broadcasters emphasize they already provide extensive news coverage of elections.
They note that at least 10 major TV station groups and dozens of individual stations voluntarily offer debates or other free time that candidates-often incumbents-sometimes turn down.