TV and politics Talking heads 

On TV, political ads replace bona fide election coverage

 
click to enlarge feature-sanchez_220jpg
Tony Sanchez: paying the piper, calling the tune (courtesy photo)
At the peak of the Texas governor's race in mid- to late October 2002, you could not turn on the television without being smothered in political ads by Republican incumbent Rick Perry or his Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez. These ads were vacuous: Some were designed to attack the opponent using out-of-context soundbites or slo-mo video of him looking like a drunk, a criminal, an idiot, or all of the above. Other "positive" ads offered pie-in-the-sky promises to the elderly, children, and the disadvantaged, whom would surely be buoyed from marginalization by the candidate's grandiose plans. And if that didn't tug at the heartstrings of potential voters, then perhaps the footage of Perry and Sanchez wrangling cows, wearing cowboy hats, and trying to prove quién es más Texan, would.

Political advertising has supplanted genuine political news coverage and debate as the preferred method of running - and covering - a campaign. For broadcasters and candidates, everybody wins: Stations don't have to pay reporters and editors to cover the campaign issues, and instead, rake in hefty ad revenues. According to media analyst Tom Wolzien, in 2004, TV stations in the United States will collect an estimated $1.6 billion in revenues from political ads, up from $1 billion in 2002.

And for those candidates who can afford $3,500 for a 30-second spot during prime time, they can spin their message and make bold pronouncements and accusations while avoiding accountability.

But democracy loses: Citizens learn nothing about the issues and have become either hostile or apathetic toward the ads and the candidates. The expense of running a television campaign also narrows the field of those who can afford to run for office.

Unless you're Rick Perry and have a batallion of big donors (plus the advantage of being an incumbent), or are dizzingly wealthy, like multi-millionaire Tony Sanchez, you can't buy a candidacy.

Political ads: the media's cash cow
Station Affiliation Revenue Number of Ads
KENS CBS $5,606,413 6,912
KSAT ABC $2,868,679 4,167
KMOL NBC $1,014,578 2,135
KWEX UNI $979,664 1,727
KABB Fox $451,296 1,018
KVDA TEL $346,043 1,719
KRRT WB $79,809 211
KPXL PAX $19,512 60
Source: Texans for Public Justice

"One of the reasons we have candidates so beholden to special interests is that campaigns are so expensive because they're paying for TV," says Fred Lewis, director of Campaigns for People, based in Austin. "These insipid shallow ads do little to enhance democracy. Someone swinging on a porch swing doesn't tell you how they're going to treat education for your children."

In 2002, San Antonio Democrat John Courage ran for the 21st Congressional District against Republican incumbent Lamar Smith. "The biggest thing is credibility," says Courage, who spent about $17,000 on TV ads, compared to Smith's $51,000. (According to election data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Smith also paid a public relations company $125,000 to gussy-up his campaign.)

"If you can pay for a political ad, you can get all the coverage you want," adds Courage. "But if you don't have enough money for advertising, the media won't take you seriously and won't cover you. You can't even get much free coverage."

In the reality show, Real World, broadcasters can make a dozen people lounging and bickering in a beach house seem engaging, but stations can't seem to tell a compelling story about politics.
According to a Texans for Public Justice study, Texas TV stations earned more than $101 million from the 2002 campaigns, which included not only the gubernatorial contest, but the U.S. Senate, House, and state races.

In the 2002 primary and general elections, San Antonio TV stations took in about $11 million, with KENS, the Belo-owned CBS affiliate, leading the way, garnering $5.6 million in revenues to run more than 6,900 ads.

An analysis of KENS' advertising invoices culled from the station's public file shows the pervasiveness of candidates' political ads. From October 14 through November 5, Sanchez purchased 264 30-second ads at a cost of $169,865. After the ad agency took its 15 percent cut, KENS netted $144,386.

By comparison, Perry, who as the incumbent has the advantage of free exposure via news events, bought 130 ads for $100,700. KENS netted $85,595.

"Ads are a very different source of information than news coverage," says Meredith McGehee, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Better Campaigns. "They `the broadcasters` say, 'Let them go watch C-span. Our job is to maximize ratings, and talking about politics isn't a winner, so we're not going to do it.'"

The National Association of Broadcasters, a powerful communications lobbying group that has backed the FCC's relaxed media ownership rules, justifies stations' election coverage, saying voters are relatively satisfied with the amount of it - and some believe there is too much.

Three simple rules for running political ads

1. The Reasonable Access Rule gives legally qualified federal candidates the right to purchase airtime from radio and TV stations during their campaign. Candidates for state and local office have not statutory right to purchase time on broadcast stations.

Broadcasters may not ban candidates from buying specific types of time (such as prime time), nor may they dictate the format or length of the ads. Broadcasters are allowed to ban political advertising during news broadcasts if they feel political advertising would compromise the journalistic integrity of news programming or confuse the public.

2. The Equal Opportunity Rule requires broadcast stations that have sold airtime to one candidate for public office to provide all candidates for that office to buy comparable airtime at a comparable rate. The rule also applies to free airtime a broadcaster makes available to candidates, unless the time falls into the broad definition of "bona fide news story or events."

3. Under the censorship ban, broadcasters or cable system operators cannot alter the content of any political ad.

Sources: Alliance for Better Campaigns, Campaign and Media Legal Center
In 2002, the NAB paid research and consulting firm Wirthlin Worldwide to conduct a survey of voters' feelings about election coverage and government-mandated free air time to candidates. The poll of 799 registered voters found that only 15 percent think broadcasters spend too little time covering elections. Just 8 percent of respondents said radio and TV advertising was "helpful" in choosing a candidate.

"Local stations take seriously their responsibility to provide fair and comprehensive election coverage," said Barbara Cochran, president of Radio-TV News Directors Association, in a prepared statement. "That's why they voluntarily offer time to candidates, arrange debates, and provide additional information on their websites."

Yet, judging from the San Antonio market and two other studies, not many stations are covering candidates and election issues. Media critic Robert McChesney cites a 2002 study of TV news stations in the 50 largest markets that showed only 37 percent carried election coverage. A Curtis Gans study revealed that in the 2000 election, 60 percent of candidate debates weren't televised at all.

And while candidates were filling KENS' coffers, outside of its newscasts, the station aired no debates or candidate forums. KENS could not be reached for comment by press deadline.

Locally, PBS affiliate KLRN broadcast debates for the U.S. Senate, state attorney general, governor, and lieutenant governor; it also aired the debate - including one in Spanish - during the Democratic primary between Sanchez and Dan Morales. Univision affiliates also aired the same debates.

McGehee adds that it is no sacrifice for stations to cover debates, issues forums, and other elements of political races, because "they get the use of the airwaves for free and they have public interest obligation. They're supposed to be paying something, that's why they should do it."

It's not only the lack of real political coverage, but the failure to make it relevant and interesting that has disenfranchised potential voters. (Voter turnout has decreased from 70 percent of eligible voters in 1960 to 50 percent in 2000.) In the reality show, Real World, broadcasters can make a dozen people lounging and bickering in a beach house seem engaging, but stations can't seem to tell a compelling story about politics.

"Most Americans are making a logical decision," McGehee says. "Politics isn't on TV, so it must not be important. And if you do see politics, it's in a 30-second negative ad. And the public says, 'the little bit I see of these egomaniacs sucked. I'm not going to participate in this system.' Politics is very interesting. The notion of making it accessible to a modern life - broadcasters don't do it."

By Lisa Sorg


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