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Jewish World Review Nov. 11, 1999 /2 Kislev, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Will TV stop profiteering from politics? -- WITH EXCEPTIONS, the broadcast TV industry seems to regard politics simply as an opportunity to get rich from campaign ads, not to inform the public. But there's an easy way it can do both.

Stations and networks can voluntarily resolve to devote at least five minutes a day to news coverage of the elections next fall -- and apply the same kind of imagination to the task that they've used to turn local weather and sports into profit centers.

The broadcast networks have found a way to make documentaries profitable and interesting with prime-time shows such as NBC's "Dateline" and ABC's "20/20."

Surely they could do the same with the 2000 elections, in which the presidency, Congress, probably a Supreme Court majority and lots of significant policy -- Social Security, Medicare, guns and health insurance -- are up for grabs.

Stations now have a new resource to help with coverage -- -- that will collect 90-second on-camera issue statements from major federal candidates and make video available at a low cost.

The trend, however, is for broadcast television to write off politics as news, while collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in political ads each election cycle -- profiteering from politics, not serving the public.

In 1998, California had a crucial governor's race, but TV stations in the top five media markets devoted, on average, less than half a percent of their total fall news coverage to the election.

Meantime, all candidates in the race spent $100 million on TV ads, according to a study by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

In another study, Rocky Mountain Media Watch surveyed local TV news coverage of the 1998 elections in 25 states and found that viewers of the late local news were four times more likely to see a political ad than a political story.

And the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that total minutes of network news coverage of the 1998 elections dropped 74 percent below the level of the 1994 midterms.

This year, according to University of Virginia scholar Larry Sabato, only half the stations serving his state covered the crucial legislative elections. A few stations did it well, but those that did not included the major stations in Washington and the Tidewater region, which reach half of the state's population.

Similarly, a survey by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication found that stations in Philadelphia covered issues in the mayoral election months ago, but only the horse race in the later stages.

A dismal dynamic is at work in TV and politics: More and more is being spent on campaign ads, less and less time is being devoted to covering elections, and voter turnout gets lower every year.

According to one crusader trying to change the system, Paul Taylor of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, "If this were a business, the CEO would surely be fired."

But, he says, "In politics, market incentives don't apply. Most politicians like low-turnout elections. Their object is to collect as much money as they can, dominate the airwaves and freeze out the opposition."

TV stations don't seem to care, either. They'll rake in $600 million from political advertising in 2000 -- six times as much, after inflation, as in 1972 -- and spend less to cover the races.

Their profiteering is all the more outrageous because in the 1995 Telecommunications Act, Congress handed the industry a $70 billion windfall, giving it extra bandwidth to use absolutely free.

To lower campaign costs, Congress ought to require TV stations to give candidates some free airtime -- they operate, after all, under federal license -- but most members seem afraid of the broadcasters' power.

Suggestions by the Federal Communications Commission that it might require stations to give away time have been met with congressional threats to cut off the FCC's funding.

Last year, a commission appointed by the Clinton administration came up with an ingenious alternative: a suggestion that networks and stations voluntarily put on five minutes of "candidate-centered" programming per day during the month preceding the elections.

The idea was boosted in a letter and newspaper ad signed by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, retired CBS anchor Walter Cronkite and 90 business, academic and political figures.

Taylor's group has prepared a handbook for local TV stations to use in creating interesting political programming through mini-debates, interviews and issue statements. It reads like Broadcasting 101, but the stations seem to need it.

Broadcasters, says Taylor, seem to have the idea that politics is boring and that voters are turned off. If that's so, he says, it's the result of a "self-fulfilling process."

"People have been fed junk food for a generation and they are sick of it," he said, referring to campaign ads. He thinks that if stations provided nutritious, interesting meals, people would return. Politics might even improve ratings if stations devoted themselves to it.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, NEA