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At least since the Nixon-Kennedy debates, few people have doubted that television changes American politics, often for the worse. Even so, some argue that TV's role in the campaign-finance morass, and in the solution to that problem, may be rather modest.

Tuning Out Free TV

Cheerleaders of campaign finance reform are touting proposals to give free TV time to politicians. But naysayers are warning that opening up the airwaves would do little to slow the political money chase--and might actually escalate the ad wars.

By Eliza Newlin Carney
National Journal, April 12, 1997

It would be hard to imagine a broadcast industry leader more eager to open up the airwaves to political candidates than John M. Laabs.

As president of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Laabs has made sure that his organization routinely sponsors senatorial and gubernatorial debates. Last year, Laabs went a step further, orchestrating a multistate debate between the GOP presidential hopefuls on the eve of Wisconsin's March 12 primary.

Primaries were slated all over the country that month, so Laabs won the cooperation of broadcast associations in 12 other states, with dozens of television stations agreeing to run the program live. The value of the debate time was in the millions of dollars.

But there was just one catch: The candidates never showed. While ex-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar said yes, then-Kansas Sen. Robert Dole and Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes Jr. wavered. When Patrick J. Buchanan begged off, the whole deal fell apart.

``It's very difficult to put on a show that you call a debate among the leading candidates, when they're not there,'' Laabs said. He acknowledged that the timing was tricky, but said he was ``a little bit surprised'' when the effort flopped.

Laabs isn't the only broadcast industry advocate who's learned that giving free airtime to candidates is easier said than done. While the ideal of free TV is hugely popular among proponents of a campaign finance overhaul, critics say it would do little to slow the political money chase--and may actually escalate the ad wars.

Not that the naysayers are getting much attention these days. President Clinton, Federal Communications Commission chairman Reed E. Hundt and a long list of reform-minded lawmakers, activists and journalists have come to regard free TV as all but a silver bullet.

Are elections too costly? Free TV time would liberate candidates from the relentless pursuit of big bucks. Are campaigns too negative and nasty? Free TV would restore civility and substantive debate. Do campaigns unfairly protect incumbents? Free TV would level the playing field. Or so the cheerleaders say.

But the skeptics warn that such expectations may be inflated. Broadcasters, not surprisingly, are adamantly opposed. They stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars if free-TV proposals go through.

Candidates have long received what amounts to a 30 per cent discount on their ads, broadcasters say. Stations are prohibited from billing candidates at more than the ``lowest unit rate''--essentially the minimum fee--that they charge commercial advertisers.

Yet the ad wars are as ferocious as ever. ``We think the country will be ill-served by . . . a scheme that would provide only for additional negative attack ads,'' said Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which has a reputation as one of Washington's most powerful industry groups.

Broadcasters aren't the only ones who doubt that free TV will solve the campaign finance mess. Campaign finance expert Dwight Morris--who heads the Campaign Study Group, a Springfield (Va.)-based consulting firm--says that for most candidates, TV does not eat up the bulk of the money, contrary to the conventional wisdom.

``The whole debate is being driven by the notion . . . that campaign spending is spiraling ever higher because of this insatiable desire to buy more TV time,'' Morris said in an interview. ``And it just doesn't turn out to be true.''


Still, television is a natural target for advocates of overhauling the campaign finance system. More than any other political tool, TV ads now define American elections.

Political mudslinging, of course, is nothing new. It goes back to the newspapers of Colonial times, and later manifested itself in handbills and radio. By the post-World War II era, television had emerged as the advertising medium of choice. Its use since then has snowballed: Candidates, political parties and interest groups spent $400 million on political ads in 1996 alone, compared with $25 million in 1972.

These days, the 30-second soundbites that dominate political communications have shortchanged and alienated voters, many experts say. Some blame the frequently negative ads for driving voter turnout down last year to 49 per cent, its lowest level since 1924.

``Negative ads decrease an individual's sense that their vote matters,'' said Stephen Ansolabehere, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate political science professor. ``Negative ads decrease voters' trust in their government and their sense that government can solve problems.'' Ansolabehere is co-author of Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate, which concludes that negative ads can depress voter turnout by as much as 5 per cent.

Such findings have convinced some reform advocates that free TV should be linked with format restrictions, such as requirements that a candidate speak directly to the camera for a minimum length of time. (See box, p. 701.)

But subsidized television's real appeal to free-time boosters is the promise that it will stanch the money flow.

Backers of the bipartisan campaign finance reform bill sponsored in the Senate by John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., regard free TV principally as an incentive to entice candidates to limit spending. Senate candidates who cap spending would get 30 minutes of free TV during the general election campaign, plus a 50 per cent discount for ads that they purchased.

``TV is really the root cause of big money in politics,'' declared Rep. Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., a leading co-sponsor of the bill's House version, at a conference on free television last month.

The March 11 event was sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, whose executive director, ex-Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor, has become a leading free-TV proponent.

Taylor touts free television as a way to tackle both the cost of campaigns and the quality of political debate. He has proposed a ``broadcast bank'' as part of a five-point reform plan developed with Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, and Thomas E. Mann, director of the Brookings Institution's governmental studies program.

The proposal would require all TV and radio stations to give two hours of time to a bank administered by the Federal Election Commission, which would hand out vouchers to parties and candidates. To qualify, candidates would have to appear in their ads, which could run no less than one minute. The bank would ``relieve the burdens of fund raising'' on all candidates, Taylor said.

President Clinton has sounded a similar note. ``Major party committees spent over three times as much in this last election cycle as four years before,'' he said at the March event. ``The biggest reason for this is the rise in the cost of television.''

Clinton contends that candidates should get free TV time in exchange for digital-spectrum licenses worth billions of dollars that the broadcasters soon will receive free from the government. He's created an independent advisory committee to hammer out broadcasters' ``new public-interest obligations'' in light of the spectrum gift.

A Common Cause report released on April 2 takes a similar tack. ``You have candidates who have to raise more and more [money] to buy back from the broadcasters a portion of the public airwaves that the broadcasters are using for free,'' said Donald J. Simon, the group's executive vice president. ``It's just a crazy system.''

Clinton also has directed the FCC to act on its own to require free airtime for candidates. And Hundt, a longtime advocate of broadcaster-financed candidate ads, seems happy to oblige. He maintains that the FCC does not have to wait for Congress before imposing free-candidate-time obligations on broadcasters.

``All of [the proposals on the table] have in common a recognition that it is constitutional, lawful and sensible to let candidates for public office use the public airwaves for public debate, including 30-second ads,'' Hundt said in an interview. ``That's absolutely right. And furthermore, the FCC can order that. We clearly have the legal power to do so.''

The NAB's Fritts, however, calls efforts to make broadcasters pay for politicians' ad time ``blatantly unconstitutional.'' In fact, court precedent suggests that broadcasters' use of the airwaves does carry with it a public- interest obligation. If free-TV proposals win approval--either by an act of Congress or through independent action by the Administration--a legal challenge is all but certain.


Even if industry-financed political ads pass constitutional muster, free TV may do little to clip election expenditures.

Morris, of the Campaign Study Group, calls the link between TV and rising campaign costs ``a myth'' that's been perpetuated by news articles. Reporters ``keep writing, year in and year out, that it's television,'' Morris said. ``And pretty soon it becomes folklore.''

A former editor for special investigations in the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau, Morris has combed through election reports to document his claims. He and fellow L.A. Times reporter Sara Fritz presented perhaps the most thorough analysis to date of how congressional candidates spend money, in their book, Handbook of Campaign Spending: Money in the 1990 Congressional Races.

That book, and its sequel covering the 1992 congressional races, concludes that candidates sink less than half their budgets into TV. In 1991-92, the average Senate candidate invested 40 per cent of his or her campaign budget on electronic media. For House candidates, the figure was 25 per cent.

Those percentages held steady for the 1993-94 elections, Morris said--once he threw out the $23 million that California Republican Michael Huffington spent on TV in his unsuccessful Senate race. Morris has not yet crunched the numbers for the 1995-96 congressional races, but he doesn't anticipate much change.

In the 1996 presidential race, the share of spending that went to broadcast advertising was considerably higher. Data compiled by Morris's Campaign Study Group for The Post show that Dole spent $117.6 million in the recent election, of which $53.8 million (close to 46 per cent) covered electronic-media costs. Clinton spent $113.9 million, with $51.8 million, or 52 per cent of the total, going to electronic media.

Morris doesn't dispute that campaign costs have escalated; the advocacy group Public Citizen pegs federal candidate and party spending at just over $2 billion in the recent election, compared with $1.58 billion in 1991-92. But Morris says that the percentage spent on TV is holding steady.

So where does all the money go? A big chunk is spent on overhead to maintain a year-round campaign operation, as many incumbents do, complete with staff, rent, utilities, furniture and supplies. In the 1991-92 cycle, Senate candidates spent $199.3 million, of which $49.5 million (24.9 per cent) went to overhead, Morris's data show.

Morris and his co-authors also have documented millions in campaign contributions used for questionable items such as meals unrelated to fund-raising efforts, constituent entertainment and ``campaign'' cars. Consultants such as media, fund-raising and polling experts also clean up. In the 1990 congressional elections, they accounted for more than $188 million, or 45 per cent, of total spending.

Other campaign experts dispute Morris's findings. TV may eat up less than half of candidates' budgets, note advocates of free television, but it remains the largest line item when stacked against other costs. Furthermore, television costs are far higher in contested congressional races, said Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a Washington nonprofit group.

Media costs totaled about 45 per cent in competitive House races in 1992, a 30 per cent increase over 1976, Gans has found. For competitive Senate races, the budget devoted to media was closer to 60 per cent in 1992, also a 30 per cent jump since 1976.

Morris's data confirm that TV costs vary wildly: In the 1995-96 cycle, Virginia Democratic Senate hopeful Mark Warner spent 70 per cent on media, while Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, spent only 24 per cent on his race. Of course, it's the high- dollar slugfests that grab headlines, such as the $9.2 million race waged last year by now-Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., against Republican Dick Zimmer, who spent $8.2 million. Some 80 per cent of Torricelli's budget went to TV, his spokesman said.

Still, in dozens of House races, television is virtually a nonissue. Many a safe incumbent does not advertise on TV at all. In such cases, free candidate television may simply spawn ad wars where none now exist.


The real danger of free-television proposals, warn political and campaign finance experts, is that unless they're carefully crafted, candidates will simply go out and buy twice as many ads. The result would be elections that are just as costly as before--and even more ad-driven. Moreover, a growing share of political ads originate not with candidates, but with parties and interest groups.

``My basic view is that unless you abolish all paid time, free time is a waste,'' said Gans, who favors instead tight regulation of all political ads. He would mandate that broadcasters sell time to candidates in blocks no shorter than two minutes, in order to encourage substantive discourse. The exception would be if politicians address the camera, in which case, the ad could run shorter.

Echoing Gans's sentiments, Lawrence Grossman, former president of NBC News and PBS, declared, ``I don't believe for one minute that offering free time . . . will in any way solve the problem of money in politics.'' In fact, Grossman warns that ``free time is going to increase the cost of political campaigning,'' since broadcasters will be forced to raise ad rates to make up the difference.

The McCain-Feingold legislation sidesteps such pitfalls, say its backers, by linking the free time to overall spending limits. But the bill faces tough opposition on Capitol Hill and may not survive.

As for how the broadcast-bank proposal might fare, Taylor predicted that because stations don't have unlimited time to sell, free ads would saturate the airwaves and crowd out paid political messages. That would benefit challengers, he said.

``Everybody knows in campaigns that first dollars are more important than next dollars and last dollars,'' Taylor noted. ``In politics, as in any other enterprise, there is a law of diminishing returns. And yes, while candidates would be likely to try to pile additional money and advertising on top of what they would be given, [paid ads] would be less efficient and therefore the stakes on getting [them] presumably would be lower.''

Taylor conceded, though, that free-TV proposals face multiple hurdles. However popular among pundits and journalists, such schemes have failed to catch fire on Capitol Hill, in part because of broadcasters' opposition.

The NAB gave more than $660,000 in political action committee (PAC) contributions in the recent election, and the Common Cause report found that over the past decade, the broadcast industry gave $9.1 million in PAC and ``soft-money'' donations. Even more important than such contributions may be lawmakers' fear of challenging TV stations, on which they depend heavily for news coverage and ad discounts.

The industry does have some maverick free-TV advocates. Barry Diller--chairman of the St. Petersburg (Fla.)-based HSN Inc., which owns the Home Shopping Network--has publicly challenged the industry to cover the cost of all political messages. ``It just isn't a lot of money,'' he says. By the NAB's own estimate, political ads accounted for only 1.2 per cent of total ad revenues last year.

Clinton's recent mandates to the broadcasters and to the FCC have raised the pressure on Congress to act. Hundt's fellow FCC commissioners, at least at this stage, don't share his zeal for free TV. Should the efforts pick up steam, however, some lawmakers have signaled that they have no intention of being left out.

``It would be difficult for the President or Mr. Hundt to act in too sweeping a manner without Congress--both for reasons of legislative requirements, but frankly, also, for reasons of getting the kind of support that they need for true campaign finance reform,'' said McCain. ``The free TV is an important part of the package.''

Even if broadcasters did end up paying for the nation's political commercials, it would be up to candidates to make such a system work.

Consultants and politicians, ever eager for the competitive edge, tend to want complete control over their campaign messages. The NAB notes that 58 per cent of TV stations offered to sponsor at least one candidate debate in the last election cycle, but of those, 26 per cent reported that at least one candidate refused.

``I think that broadcasters have for years given the kind of free time we've been talking about,'' said Laabs, of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. ``And I think they have met their public service obligations through those efforts. Would they be willing to give more? I think they would. Should they be mandated to give more? I don't think that's necessary.''

Laabs foresees a logistical nightmare if TV stations are forced to run political ads for free. ``They do not have infinite inventories,'' he noted. ``And it would certainly create twice as [many] political advertising opportunities for politicians.''

Such warnings are unlikely to silence the growing chorus of free-TV advocates. Certainly the promises by proponents--such as Taylor's prediction that free television will ``get rid of dirty money [and] replace it with clean communications resources''--have tremendous popular appeal. On the other hand, TV advertising may turn out to be, as Morris puts it, ``the straw man of the American electoral process.''

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