The Problem with Politics on TV

Political ads are a goldmine for TV stations. Is that why they are cutting campaign coverage?


| September-October 2000


Back in mid-January, just as the presidential primaries were heating up, CBS Morning News anchor Bryant Gumbel indulged in a bout of on-air condescension about the campaign. "I stumbled upon Saturday’s [debate]," he told viewers, "and it really seemed a rather sad show."

More and more these days, Gumbel’s disdain for politics is shared by his employers, who have come to view elections as little more than cash cows. Broadcast television’s game plan for Campaign 2000 has been to reduce coverage, restrict candidate airtime, and milk politicians for lots of expensive ads.

Gumbel stumbled on that debate only because he wasn’t watching ABC, CBS, or NBC. Of the record 22 presidential debates televised through the Super Tuesday primaries in March, just two aired on a broadcast network, and neither in prime time. The others were available exclusively on cable, where they attracted smaller niche audiences.

There was a time when broadcasters leaped at the chance to serve as unofficial hosts of the presidential campaign. It was a way to earn their spurs as newscasters, to make household names out of their anchors and reporters, to inform their viewers, to serve the public interest.

Now they view politics as a burden, a bore, a "sad show." At local stations, it’s now the ad sales manager, not the news director, who operates the only political desk on the premises. A recent issue of Broadcasting & Cable magazine nicely captured the Gilded Age mind-set of broadcasters toward politics. "Campaign 2000," trumpeted the cover. "Happy Days Are Here Again; Ad Dollars Piling Up."

Industry analysts estimate that candidates for federal and state offices will spend $600 million on political spots this year, a sixfold increase (in inflation-adjusted dollars) from 1972. Almost all of that money goes to local stations, which often enjoy revenue spikes of up to 15 percent when the political season hits high gear.