- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

Broadcasters are gouging politicians, according to a recent study by the Alliance for Better Campaigns, which found that TV stations around the country inflate their advertising prices more than 50 percent in the pivotal weeks before an election.

Candidates dig deep to pay for all those attack ads. However, voters — bombarded by campaign spots but little quality election news — are ultimately affected as well.

An analysis of 37,000 political ads on 39 local TV stations in 19 states found that the average price per ad rose 53 percent from Aug. 26 to Nov. 4 last year, according to the study released Thursday. The practice violates a 1971 federal law that prohibits broadcasters from exploiting candidates by charging them more than year-round advertisers.

The candidates, however, are a captive group at election time. Many opt out of low-price ads that can be bumped out of prime time at the station’s discretion, investing instead in higher-cost ads that cannot be pre-empted.

It makes for a burgeoning business. Candidates spent $1 billion on TV advertising last year — four times the amount they spent in 1982, even adjusting for inflation. It has only enhanced the culture of high-dollar politics, according to the survey.

The TV audience gets more marketing froth than red-meat politics.

A University of Southern California/University of Wisconsin study released July 23 found that 56 percent of local news broadcasts seen on the top 122 stations nationwide contained no campaign stories whatsoever during the six weeks preceding the mid-term elections last year.

Yet, 82 percent of them contained at least one paid campaign ad.

“Are voters being served by broadcasters who are supposed to look after the public interest?” asked Alliance President Meredith McGehee. “The answer is a resounding no. They are not informed or engaged by stations which only cover the horse race and not the issues. But they rush to show a 30-second attack ad.”

Disengaged voters, she said, “are a bad sign for democracy.”

The 39 stations in the Alliance study revealed varied degrees of culpability. Three lowered their prices a few points during the survey period. The rest jacked them up, ranging from a low of 1 percent to a high of 250 percent.

There were some standouts. During his campaign for senator last year, Rep. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, paid $50 for a local, prime time TV spot on CBS affiliate KELO in Sioux Falls on Sept. 1. By Nov. 3, he paid $800 for the same time slot — an increase of 1,500 percent.

Enough is enough, say some. A trio of lawmakers introduced the “Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act” on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican; Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat; and Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, want TV as well as radio stations to honor their public interest obligations.

“Our democracy is stronger when a candidate’s success is achieved by ideas, not by dollars. And when an electorate is informed by facts and not by 12-second sound bites,” Mr. McCain said.

The act would require the stations to air at least two hours of “candidate-centered or issue-centered” programming a week during election periods. It also would set up a voucher system for candidates who want to buy TV time, designed to curb rampant spending.

It would also close loopholes in the 1971 law, and require stations to offer better disclosure of their political advertising sales.

“This bill will improve news coverage of political campaigns and make those campaigns less expensive,” Mr. Feingold said.

“The key to campaign-finance reform is the cost of TV advertising,” Mr. Durbin said. “This would reduce the amount of money in politics by making the public airwaves more accessible for political speech.”

The complete study can be seen at the Alliance for Better Campaigns Web site (www.bettercampaigns.org).

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