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By: Katy Bachman

Public Interest Group Criticizes Broadcasters

by Katy Bachman

(Mediaweek) The Alliance for Better Campaigns, a public-interest
group headed by former Washington Post writer Paul Taylor, this
week will begin a nationwide campaign to inform the public that
TV stations are allotting far more time to political advertising
than they are to political coverage.

‘We’re going to let the public know that broadcasters are profiting
from democracy,’ said Taylor, executive director of the Alliance
which will hold a press conference Thursday in Washington, D.C.

As part of its campaign, the group will run ads in national
newspapers drawing attention to its Web site (bettercampaigns.org),
which will document how much each of the 1,300 commercial TV
stations in the U.S. is taking in from political advertising
compared to the length of coverage provided in local newscasts.

According to the Alliance, during the primaries, TV stations
averaged 39 seconds per night of election news. The broadcast
networks aired an average of 36 seconds. For example, the Alliance
cited this year’s Senate primary in New Jersey.

The issue of free air time has been churning on Capitol Hill since
January 1998 when President Bill Clinton called for free air time
in his State of the Union address. However, broadcasters, armed
with millions of dollars in lobbying clout, rallied to kill
anything that would impose what they saw was an infringement of
the right to free speech. Finally, at the end of 1998, the Gore
Commission, co-chaired by Les Moonves, president, CBS Television
Network, recommended that broadcasters voluntarily air five
minutes of ‘candidate centered discourse’ a night, rather than
mandate it.

With a few exceptions, that recommendation has fallen on deaf ears.
‘We have been both surprised and disappointed at how little uptake
there has been. Just 50 out of 1,300 commercial stations said they
would try to meet the standard [five minutes of free air time],’
said Taylor.

However there have been some signs of improvement. Hearst-Argyle
last week said that, starting in October, 24 of its 26 stations that
air news will devote a minimum five minutes of airtime each night
to candidate discourse, joining E. W. Scripps (9 stations) and
Capitol Broadcasting (3 stations) which committed earlier this

‘The difficulty is there is such an emphasis on minute-to-minute
ratings, which effect the bottom line. The fear is that if there
is a departure from the fast-paced news presentation, the station
will pay the price,’ said John Lansing, vice president and general
manager of Scripps-owned WEWS-TV in Cleveland. ‘Our position is
that our long-term commitment is a public service. Our research
indicates that we’re getting credit for our in-depth coverage,’
added Lansing.

The three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, which practically sat out
the political conventions, have yet to make any sort of commitment.
NBC and ABC did not return phone calls seeking comment, but a CBS
spokesperson said it was ‘evaluating’ its position.

Belo, which has been offering candidates five minutes of airtime
since 1996 and whose chairman, Robert Decherd, also sat on the Gore
Commission, is taking a slightly different approach to political
coverage. The company’s stations offer candidates five minutes of
coverage, which are packaged into a program called It’s Your Time.
In addition to airing the program once or twice in the three-week
cycle prior to the election, Belo stations have vowed to broadcast
three issue- or candidate-centered stories every week for 30 to 45
days before the elections.

‘The Gore Commission is looking for uniformity, but we offer more
access. This is in addition to our news coverage,’ said Regina
Sullivan, Belo vice president of government and public affairs.

For those stations that do provide extensive coverage of the
elections, getting candidates to cooperate can be tough.
‘[Candidates’] messages are so tightly controlled, that there is
fear on part of the candidates to be candid,’ noted Candy Altman,
Hearst-Argyle group news executive. ‘Not everyone is a taker, but
we’re going to try.’


(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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