Star Tribune

Opinion

Ban TV campaign ads: That's half the battle

Local stations -- or the media conglomerates that own them -- are getting half of the escalating amount of money that's being spent.

Article by: LORIN R. ROBINSON

Updated: November 18, 2012 - 5:27 PM

Much is being made of the ever-escalating cost of political campaigns. In the presidential race this year alone, each candidate raised approximately $1 billion. As recently as 2000, both candidates spent $343 million; it was $718 million in 2004. Expenditures in 2008 were more than $1.3 billion -- a 279 percent increase in just eight years. The 2012 expenditures were 54 percent above that.

Overall, it's estimated that $6 billion was spent on all national elections, propelled by legal and regulatory decisions (i.e., the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010) that allowed wealthy megadonors and special-interest groups to pour unlimited amounts of cash into races.

Yet while outside spending affected the election in numerous ways, the prizes sought by many megadonors remained beyond their grasp. King of the megadonors, casino operator Sheldon Adelson, poured tens of millions into conservative campaign coffers backing eight candidates. All of them lost.

Some advocates for tighter campaign-financing regulations argue that who won or lost is beside the point. The danger, they say, is that in the post-Citizens United world, politicians on both sides of the aisle are far more beholden to the wealthy individuals who offer large-scale donations. If money pollutes the political process, it is probably safe to assert that the more money candidates have to raise, the more polluted the process becomes.

The debate about the impact of money on politics is contentious and inconclusive. But for argument's sake, let's assume that ridiculously high and escalating campaign expenditures are not healthy for our political system. Then the question becomes: "How do we reduce campaign costs?"

One answer is as simple as it is complex -- ban paid political advertising on television.

It's not widely realized, but about 50 percent of all campaign expenditures go directly into the pockets of local-market TV stations, or, in most cases, into the bank accounts of the handful of media conglomerates that own them. Thus, if $6 billion was spent on all national races this year, the tab could have been reduced to $3 billion without TV ads.

I know it's difficult to imagine a world without TV campaign ads. They've been with us, and in ever-increasing numbers, for decades. But why?

Pioneering CBS News producer Don Hewitt described how it all began in 1960 when he produced the famous Nixon-Kennedy TV debates. "We looked at them and said, 'These guys are a bottomless pit of advertising dollars.' And, from that moment, the No. 1 qualification for candidates in the world's greatest democracy was the ability to raise money for TV ads."

The Federal Communications Act of 1934 created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requiring that individuals granted licenses to broadcast must do so "in the public interest, convenience and necessity." Broadcasters were to hold licenses in the public trust, not in perpetuity, only as long as they demonstrated appropriate stewardship.

Simply put: Why should broadcasters have made $3 billion in 2012 by commercializing political communication that should be offered free as a public service -- a part of licensees' commitment to serve the public interest?

"If you happen to operate a television station in a presidential battleground state that also has a key Senate race," writes Bill Wheatley, a former executive vice president of NBC News, "it's like winning the lottery."

And if you happen to be unlucky enough to live in one of those states, you probably saw a dozen or more TV ads an hour as campaigns carpet bombed the electorate.

Why pick on broadcast TV? Don't campaigns also spend money on commercial cable, print advertising, billboards and lawn signs? The difference, of course, is these media are not licensed by the federal government and thus required to serve in the public's best interest.

Is banning TV political ads such a radical idea? Many around the world don't think so. Paid TV campaign ads are not permitted in Great Britain, Ireland, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines and India, among other places.

Banning paid political TV ads, of course, is not a new idea. It's been discussed. The broadcasting industry's reaction has been predictable -- the invocation of the First Amendment. Banning paid campaign ads, we're told, violates candidates' rights to free speech. That this argument is oxymoronic goes without saying. How can paid speech be free speech? What broadcasters want is for candidates to have the "right" to pay them to reach the public on its own public airwaves. Or, am I missing something?

The issue for broadcasters, of course, is lost revenue and lots of it.

How realistic is it to believe that broadcasters would accept the loss of this profit center? Cynics cite the industry's powerful lobbying, its cozy relationships with both the FCC and its political advertiser-clients.

But perhaps the spectacularly inappropriate 2012 campaign spending, and the electorate's increasing disgust, will be the "tipping point" leading to this much-needed reform.

Dr. Lorin Robinson is a participating adjunct in the Graduate College of Business at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

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