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Free Airtime Plan Criticized

Oct 31, 2004  •  Post A Comment

An extremely contentious political campaign season is staying that way to the end.

On Oct. 27, three California lawmakers complained to the Federal Communications Commission and Rep. John Dingell, R-Mich., about contributions by Pappas Telecasting Cos. of airtime worth as much as $325,000 to be used by some but not all candidates in some California races.

Pappas, the largest privately held commercial TV broadcast group in the United States, made the last-minute offer of TV and radio campaign airtime to Republican central committees in some 13 California counties and Democratic central committees in five California counties. Pappas owns 25 stations affiliated with The WB, ABC, CBS, UPN and Azteca Americana and operates three other stations, reaching a combined 15 percent of the country’s TV homes.

Pappas said it was buying surplus airtime on its own properties and then giving away the purchased time as an “in-kind contribution.” The company also said that doing so is legal in California and is in compliance with Federal Communications Commission equal time regulations.

The complaints were registered on behalf of California Assembly member Nicole Parra, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and state Sen. Don Perata, all Democrats. In response, Kenneth Ferree, chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, said in a statement, “The FCC has made no decision at this time regarding equal time requirements in the matter of Pappas Telecasting.”

“Now that a complaint has been filed with the commission, we will take the proper steps to ensure that the matter is resolved in accordance with the political programming regulations and do so as quickly as possible,” the statement said.

Pappas responded with a press release saying it had “carefully researched not only the legality of its contributions under California law to the Democratic and Republican County Committees but also carefully and specifically inquired of the very agency which enforces the various political advertising laws and regulations, the FCC, about the specific circumstances of the intended non-monetary contributions.”

A letter dated Oct. 26, addressed to the San Joaquin County Democratic Central Committee and signed by Pappas Chairman, President and CEO Harry Pappas, said, “We make this contribution to your committee, but we make no recommendation, suggestion or request as to whom you may choose to endorse, support or oppose.”

The letter also asked that a disclaimer-“Airtime furnished by Harry J. Pappas and his affiliated entities”-be added to any commercials run under the offer.

Pappas’ announcement of the contributions also said that the recipients’ political opponents would have an “equal opportunity” to purchase time on Pappas stations at the lowest unit rate.

Other broadcasters and those familiar with federal law and regulations seemed doubtful that Pappas could sell the FCC on its definition of “free time,” but most agreed that if one candidate’s face or voice appears in a commercial that airs for free, the opponents cannot be charged for comparable time.

A Pappas executive in a position to know whether any candidates had claimed donated time did not return a call late last week.

A company spokesman issued a statement that said, in part, that Pappas “is a bipartisan company with a long history of support for both Republican and Democratic elected officials and candidates and state party committees.”

“The probability is that the amount of airtime actually used by these party committees, whether Democratic or Republican, will be a relatively small percentage of the amount made available to them,” said the Pappas spokesman.

“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” said a campaign spokesman for Democratic incumbent state Sen. Mike Machado, of the last-minute plan to make the time available. “No one has contacted the Machado campaign offering anything.” n

Doug Halonen contributed to this report.