Air Time for Candidates

Air Time for Candidates

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Sept. 24 1997 3:30 AM

Air Time for Candidates

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Dear Barbara,

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       Your first reply shows a lot more fundamental disagreement between us than I had imagined--this dialogue may last longer than either of us had anticipated! I will respond to each of your points, but first let me describe the outlines of the free-time plan I and my colleagues (Mann, Malbin, Corrado, and Taylor) have proposed--which space limitations did not allow me to do in my first go-round. The description itself should answer at least a few of your points, which are based on some misunderstanding of the specifics.
       Let me note at the outset that some of the questions you raise about free time in campaigns are important ones. Who gets time and who does not? Who determines what the candidates can and cannot do with their time? Who decides when spots must be broadcast? How can time operate in markets like New York and L.A., which cover dozens of congressional districts? There are no easy answers to these questions--but there are answers and alternatives to make a system that is workable in both the political and broadcasting marketplaces, and that will also be a benefit to voters, who deserve adequate and meaningful discourse in competitive campaigns.
       Our idea is to create a broadcast bank, filled with the equivalent of minutes of commercial broadcast time or their dollar equivalent. How the bank would be filled is open, but some considerable resources could come from a deal suggested by broadcasters themselves: providing one minute of free time in return for each two minutes of paid time, in exchange for repeal of the lowest unit rate discount fee broadcasters are required to give to political candidates. (To address one of your assertions, the marginal additional one minute of time would not necessarily go to the candidate who had bought the two minutes, but to the bank to distribute according to a formula outlined below.)
       Ideally, the bank would have a lot more time in it--the equivalent of two hours of prime commercial time for each broadcast station, worth perhaps $400 million in a two-year election cycle or 0.5 percent of the advertising revenues of all the stations. Who would pay for this time? To be sure, it could all come from the stations as a part of their public-interest obligation. But it doesn't have to. One option is to pay for some or all of it through the fees broadcasters will have to pay the federal government for non-high-definition television uses of the digital spectrum--and we know, courtesy of Preston Padden of ABC, that there will be substantial non-HDTV applications. In other words, free time to help reform our campaign system does not have to be subsidized by rank-and-file taxpayers or simply taken from broadcasters as a part of their public-interest obligation; there are many ways of balancing interests here.
       A more important question than how to pay for free time is how to allocate it. We have suggested the following: Half of the time in the bank would go to the political parties, to allocate to their candidates as they see fit; and the other half of the time would go to candidates who demonstrate a broad base of support in the form of matching vouchers, as candidates raise over threshold amounts in small individual contributions. (For example, if a candidate raised $25,000 in contributions of $100 or less, the candidate would get vouchers for $25,000 of broadcast time.)
       Ideally, the time would be fungible and tradable: Candidates from congressional districts where television is impractical could trade their vouchers to other candidates or to their party in return for money to pay for things like radio or postage costs. Stations would treat the vouchers as the equivalent to cash. (If the stations contributed time to this effort, they would be reimbursed at the end of the campaign for any vouchers they held that exceeded their commitment.)
       What would candidates do with the time? The same things they do now, with one difference--in return for this free time, candidates would have to appear on-screen and use their own voices for narration of their messages. There is a body of research demonstrating that ads where candidates appear are more nuanced, balanced, and measured--and less harshly negative--than ads where they do not.
       Candidates, of course, could buy time as they do now. If a candidate did not feel comfortable giving his or her own message, that candidate could trade his or her vouchers to another candidate, and use the resources for radio or mailings, or whatever method the candidate preferred. Stations would treat vouchers as equivalent to cash, and handle the time buying of the candidates just as they do now.
       With this system, there would be no problem of too many candidates using up too much time in markets like New York or Los Angeles. Ultrawealthy candidates would have a harder time; they could no longer buy $10 million or $20 million of air time at wholesale lowest unit rate prices, but would have to buy at retail, and they would have a harder time raising large sums from small contributors. Challengers with a broad base of support would have an opportunity to get their messages across, and parties would have resources to help their most promising challengers.
       Now let me address some of your other points. You talk about the dramatic increase in television costs coming between 1976 and 1988, and place the blame on candidates and their consultants, not broadcasters. The cost of political TV ads rose from $25 million in 1972 to $400 million in 1996, more than four times the rate of inflation. Frankly, I am not interested in apportioning blame for this. The point is that costs of communicating have skyrocketed, and with them the obsessive drive by candidates to raise money--and with the relentless pressure to raise the money have come, no surprise, scandals, along with fewer competitive congressional races because few challengers can raise enough to cross the threshold of what is required to get a message across.
       As for your criticism of the buy-two-get-one-free suggestion, let me reiterate that it comes not from me but from the NAB--and, as I point out above, it does not mean that the free time goes only to candidates who buy lots of time.
       I am touched by the altruism of broadcasters providing free time--no really, I am. Many broadcasters do offer debates, cover news conferences, and run public affairs shows. Many do not. The number of debates, especially for congressional races, is limited (and, let's face it, for all their public value, most voters do not watch debates). As for news coverage of politics, the Radio-Television News Directors Association frankly ought to be ashamed. A survey last year by the Rocky Mountain Media Watch looked at the local news broadcasts on 52 stations in cities across the country on the evening of Sept. 11, 1996--the heart of the fall campaign. It found that only 9 percent of the stations had a story about a U.S. Senate race, 5 percent about any state race, 3 percent about a mayoral race, and 1 percent about a congressional race. If politics aren't covered, what is? The same group found crime and disaster stories taking up 53 percent of the local news hole, and "fluff" (soft news, celebrity items, chatter, anchor teases) taking up another 31 percent.
       What about the issue of candidates ducking debates? Yes, they do--especially incumbents, who know their challengers have no other way of getting voter attention to get a message across or drawing a comparison with the incumbent. Provide substantial free time to a broad range of candidates, including challengers, and the problem of incumbents or front-runners ducking debates will be greatly reduced. Still, we can both agree that candidates should not duck debates--so how about RTNDA supporting a proposal that gives free time only to candidates who agree to appear in televised debates and interview programs? My colleagues and I will be happy to help you draft the language. Now we're getting somewhere.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for public policy research. Barbara S. Cochran is president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. She was executive producer of politics for CBS News during the 1996 election cycle. From 1989 to 1995, Cochran served CBS as vice president and Washington bureau chief.