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Iowa TV Gets Beyond Sound Bites

With a series of hour-long debates, broadcasters give voters a close look at Senate candidates

IOWANS are plowing new, promising ground in the relationship between TV and politics. Television broadcasters here are sponsoring four debates which give candidates for the United States Senate monthly access to every voter in Iowa.

Three broadcasts, pitting Sen. Tom Harkin (D) against challenger Tom Tauke (R), have already aired in July, August, and September. They have covered a wide range of important issues, including defense, foreign policy, education, and environment. One full hour was devoted to the abortion controversy.

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``This is a first,'' says Larry Edwards, executive director of the Iowa Broadcasters Association. Congressman Tauke calls it ``somewhat precedent-setting.''

Iowa's plan is unusual in that it encompasses the entire state, and has gotten Iowa's normally rivalrous 27 TV stations to work closely together.

Mr. Edwards, who was instrumental in putting together the debate agreement, says it it wasn't always easy to balance the needs of suspicious political managers with those of broadcasters who were sometimes hesitant to give away valuable prime-time access to the airwaves. When he entered one key negotiating session in May, Edwards says it reminded him of a Henry Kissinger analogy:

``It was like walking into a room with an inch of gasoline on the floor, and everybody had a book of matches.''

Both the candidates and the broadcasters now agree that the one-hour debates are providing an excellent way to inform voters, while coincidently reducing campaign expenses for politicians.

``There's a lot of noise going on in Washington right now about political reform and campaign spending,'' Edwards observes. ``But it won't clean up the act unless candidates agree to use a longer form [of broadcast].'' Broadcast cooperation

What is so unusual about Iowa is that there was unanimity among TV stations in granting free time, while at the same time cooperating to set up four broadcasts, each with its own ad hoc network. Each broadcast has reached every part of the state. The final debate will air Oct. 16.

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``It's unique,'' says Joe Lentz, vice president and general manager of WHO-TV in Des Moines.

Every debate was handled by a different group of stations, mostly affiliated with one network. The first originated out of WHO-TV, and included mostly NBC stations.

The second revolved around CBS affiliates, the third, ABC. The final broadcast will be mostly on public broadcasting stations.

To fill gaps in coverage, the various groups of stations sometimes included independent broadcasters and certain critical out-of-state stations in adjoining Nebraska, Illinois, and Minnesota. Only in that way could every remote corner of Iowa be reached with a clear signal.

Robert Allen, vice president and general manager of KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids, says that when it's all over, an estimated 40 to 50 percent of Iowa's 1 million TV homes will have tuned into at least one broadcast.

In addition to TV, each of the debates also airs on a network of Iowa radio stations, expanding the audience significantly.

Edwards says TV officials put together the Senate debates out of a sense of idealism, as well as pragmatism.

``I'm not saying there are not good broadcasters in other places, but I do think here in the Midwest broadcasters take very seriously this public service image. As Midwesterners, we and the candidates have taken that very seriously, or they wouldn't have agreed to this whole thing.''

But Edwards says Iowans also wanted to show how politics can be conducted in a thoughtful way - rather than with glitzy commercials favored by many Washington politicians.

``I find it distasteful that people will elect someone pretty much on a name-identity basis. There's a group of people out there - 10 or 15 percent - that aren't very well informed, but who vote. And they vote by familiarity.''

Rather than catchy TV and radio ads, Edwards believes American campaigns should move toward thorough discussions of the issues, as in this Iowa Senate race.

When congressional reformers demand cheaper rates for TV ads for politicians, Edwards says, broadcasters will be able to hold Iowa up as an example of a better way to do it.

``Broadcasters have offered [free debate time] in many places, and one candidate will say, `No, I don't want to do it.' So it truly comes back to the two candidates being willing.''

Edwards continues: ``When this becomes an issue in Washington, we want to say, ... `Hey, we hear your argument. You're saying you need more exposure at less cost to reduce election costs.'''

Offering an alternative

At that point, Edwards says broadcasters should offer politicians an alternative. They could say: ``All you guys have to do is agree to meet each other, and your local media will support you. And that's free, and that's about as cheap as you can get. But don't come to us asking for cheaper 10-second or 20-second commercials that are done by outside agencies, that are slick. That isn't campaign reform. It's a good deal for you guys, but it's not what the public deserves.''

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