The Problem with Politics on TV

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.

“We’re salivating,” Patrick Paolini, general sales manager of the local CBS affiliate in Buffalo, New York, told Electronic Media when he was asked about the profit potential of the then-looming Senate showdown between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.

Let’s follow the vicious cycle here: We the public give the broadcast industry our airwaves for free, in return for their commitment to serve the public interest. At election time, the industry turns around and sells airtime to candidates, fueling a money chase that saps public confidence in the political process and restricts the field of candidates to the wealthy and their friends. The money pays for ads that reduce political discourse to synthetic, deceptive, inflammatory, and grating sound bites.

As campaigns choke on money and ads, the public drifts away from politics in boredom or disgust. Ratings-sensitive broadcasters then scale back on substantive political coverage–forcing candidates to rely even more on paid ads as their sole means of getting a message out on television. And so the cycle keeps spinning.

This syndrome is most acute at local stations, which expect to convert more than half a billion dollars of campaign finances into campaign ads this year. Two recent studies paint a disturbing picture:

  • In 1998, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California found that the state’s major television stations devoted, on average, less than half of 1 percent of their total news coverage to the governor’s race in the three months leading up to the election. Candidates who wanted to get on the air had to pay their own way–which is what they did, to the tune of a record $100 million for TV ads.
  • That same year, a survey of local television news coverage in 25 states found that viewers were four times more likely to see a political ad than a political story during the late-night local news.

Local television news has long been the land of body bags, happy talk, health tips, weather, and sports. It’s never had much of a journalistic tradition of informing viewers about their political choices. But the national networks do–or once did.

As Gumbel was grumbling about the debates earlier this year, his network was dispatching one-third fewer reporters and producers to Iowa and New Hampshire than it had four years earlier. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a media watchdog group, coverage of this year’s presidential campaign on network evening newscasts is down by roughly a third from 1996 (when it was down by 50 percent from 1992). Moreover, the coverage overwhelmingly emphasizes what has been called the “chess game of politics.” According to one survey, just 13 percent of campaign stories focus on political issues that touch the everyday lives of viewers.

“We are doing a very minimal amount of coverage at ABC,” veteran newsman Sam Donaldson conceded to the Dallas Morning News in February. “Outside of Nightline and our Sunday show, ABC News in my view has simply forfeited the field. And there may be good reason for that. The cable networks are just omnipresent now. For us to run long programs in prime time as a public service doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore to our bosses.”

Donaldson put his finger on the historic transformation in the media during this presidential year–the explosion of new outlets for information on cable and the Internet. And he accurately characterizes his industry’s response: Hey, if you want this stuff, it’s out there. What’s the problem?

One problem is that one-fourth of the American public doesn’t subscribe to cable, and half doesn’t go online. Do we really want to charge admission–in the form of a cable subscription or an Internet service fee–for a front-row seat at the presidential campaign?

Besides, cable and the Internet deliver political information only to those who are motivated to seek it. Fewer and fewer citizens are so motivated–in part because broadcast television continues to poison the political well by drowning the audience in a flood of ads.

Is there a better way? In all but a handful of countries around the world, broadcasters are required to provide candidates or parties with blocks of free airtime so they can communicate directly to voters. But at home, our powerful broadcast lobby has blocked all such proposals for 70 years.

The National Association of Broadcasters staged the lobbying coup of the decade in 1996 by convincing Congress to hand over tens of billions of dollars’ worth of new space on the public airwaves, free of charge, to facilitate the transition to digital technology. Senate majority leader Bob Dole called the giveaway a “giant corporate welfare program.” But broadcasters easily prevailed, backed by more than $420 million in political contributions and lobbying–and by their power to provide favorable coverage to members of Congress.

Still, there may be some cracks in this wall of opposition to airtime for candidates. In the wake of the spectrum handout, an advisory committee of broadcasters and public interest advocates appointed by President Clinton came up with a smart compromise designed to break the impasse. The committee recommended that all television stations voluntarily provide five minutes of nightly candidate discourse in the 30 nights preceding elections. The idea is to challenge the television industry to invent an entirely new kind of political campaign–one built around brief nightly forums among candidates for federal, state, and local office.

Five minutes many not seem like much; in fact, it would be a revolution. During the height of the 2000 primary season, by contrast, ABC, NBC, and CBS aired a nightly average of just half a minute of candidate discourse. Local stations aired even less.

Some 20 local stations around the country have pledged to meet the five-minute standard this fall. WCVB-TV, the ABC affiliate in Boston, already did so during the New Hampshire primaries, presenting viewers with a nightly fare of candidate interviews, issue statements, stump speeches, and debate footage. “We were pleased with the way it went,” says station manager Paul La Camera.

Twenty stations are, of course, just a drop in the bucket. There are 1,300 other commercial stations that have yet to sign on, including most of the affiliates owned by the industry giants. It’s clear that part of the resistance comes from a fear of lost ad revenue. “Once you give a politician five minutes of free airtime, he’s going to go somewhere else and spend the money he saved at your station,” says Perry Chester, general manager of the CBS affiliate in Champaign, Illinois. Even more disturbing has been the silence from the CBS network, whose president, Leslie Moonves, served as co-chair of the advisory panel that made the recommendation in the first place.

It’s possible that the favorable response to campaign finance reform during the primaries will spur the industry to step forward. It could not have been lost on the broadcast lobby that three of the four finalists in this year’s presidential field–Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and John McCain–are all outspoken advocates of mandatory free airtime for candidates. Perhaps that will concentrate some minds.

And perhaps not. The closest CBS has come to making good on the recommendation was to air a five-minute segment on Bradley during prime time on March 2. It was a rare burst of exposure for a challenger who’d been virtually blacked out by the networks after he narrowly lost the New Hampshire primary. But, alas, there was one problem that kept it from being the kind of innovation reformers are seeking: Bradley had to pay CBS $200,000 to air the segment.

Paul Taylor is the founder and director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, which seeks to improve elections by promoting alternatives to paid political advertising. From Mother Jones(May-June 2000). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from Box 334, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.

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