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A Primetime Solution

TELEVISION networks largely get a free ride from the federal government. They don't pay for a license to use the few frequencies made available, and yet they can make billions in revenue. In return, the government expects the networks to serve the public interest.

But do networks really serve the public interest when they charge their highest rates for campaign ads of candidates?

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Paying for such ads is easily the biggest cost in candidates' budgets. It pushes them to scrounge for money from big donors, who then expect favors. The result is a loss of public faith in government of the people, for the people.

According to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a project run by former Washington Post journalist Paul Taylor, the revenue produced from political TV ad sales has shot up from less than $200 million in 1980 to $1 billion in 2000.

And during that same time, network news coverage has been dramatically scaled back. In the final weeks of the 2000 presidential campaign, the same stations selling up to 50 campaign ads a night were, on average, airing less than one minute a night of candidate discussion of issues.

ABC, CBS, and NBC spent 28 percent less nightly news time covering the 2000 campaign than they did on the 1988 campaign, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Corporations controlling the networks have spent heavily to prevent changes by Congress. The latest campaign-finance reform law only passed after a successful lobbying effort to kill an amendment that would've forced stations to offer cheaper ad rates for candidates.

Television is the town square for society, where ideas are expressed nationally. To help keep the networks in the public service, Congress should require broadcasters to offer free air time to candidates before an election.

Broadcasters, of course, have First Amendment rights, but those rights can be superceded by the public interest, according to a 1969 ruling by the Supreme Court. With cable television and the Internet now added to the media mix, candidates have even more ways to reach voters. But only broadcast TV signals still arrive free of charge in homes.

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The price of admission to enter public office needs to come down. As long as network advertising is the vehicle of choice for political campaigns, the networks should make a more significant contribution to the public interest.