- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

On Media

Nine seconds it's just enough for name, rank and serial number, perhaps.

A new study finds that local political candidates get just 9-1/2 seconds on camera when and if they get a little face time on television.

After analyzing 1,227 hours of news programming from 50 markets around the country, University of Wisconsin researchers found that those partisan hopefuls have gotten short shrift.

"Campaign stories are scarce, and only a fifth of them include candidates talking," the survey noted. "When they do speak, candidates talk for 9.5 seconds, on average."

Researchers sat through 2,454 half-hour evening news broadcasts from Sept. 18 to Oct. 4; they found that 1,311 of the broadcasts carried no campaign coverage whatsoever.

Stations that did air political stories allotted them an average 80 seconds, heavy on the file footage and analysis. Fewer than 20 percent of the stories contained interviews with the candidates.

Governors have more cachet than lawmakers, it seems. Gubernatorial races made up 48 percent of the coverage, while 17 percent went to U.S. Senate contests and 5 percent to the races for House of Representatives.

The remaining 30 percent focused on state or local elections, or on ballot initiatives.

"Local TV news gives cold shoulder to political candidates," the study concluded.

The study doesn't sit well with Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). She faulted the researchers for analyzing broadcasts that aired more than a month before election week, when the public's interest is at its peak.

"Averaging out numbers doesn't really tell you anything either. It is a disservice to the public and overlooks those stations which plan to commit time to political coverage," she said yesterday.

Along with the Annenberg Public Policy Center, RTNDA is working with 10 stations around the country to tweak their on-air and Internet political coverage, aiming to snare "politically savvy, older TV viewers who don't feel comfortable using the Web, and the Web-savvy younger Internet users who are less interested in politics."

There is still ad revenue to be made from political candidates eager to sling mud or promote their causes.

By September, 561 local stations had taken in a collective $306 million by airing 512,255 political spots, Campaign Media Analysis Group reported.

The haul could be "$850 million this year, and maybe even hit $1 billion," Chris Rohrs of the Television Bureau of Advertising told Media Week in September. That would be double the amount spent on political advertising in 1998.

Back in 2000, candidates spent $771 million on political advertising, a sixfold increase from 1972 figures, according to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a group that advocates free airtime for candidates.

"Broadcasters have become the leading cause of the high cost of modern politics," the group said upon releasing the figures, accusing TV stations of gouging candidates while cutting back on serious campaign coverage.

Some stations are making efforts to improve, however.

Affiliates with Media General, A.H. Belo Corp., Cox Television and other broadcast companies plan to provide five minutes of free nightly airtime to candidates this fall. But they are in the minority, representing only 139 of the nation's approximately 1,300 commercial TV stations.

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