Battle of the Network Pimps

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

August 5, 2003

You know the drill. Promising politician throws hat in the ring. Candidate needs to get message of prosperity, security and lower taxes to the masses. Consultant advises that TV is the surest pipeline to the populace. The price tag is steep. Second mortgage is taken out on candidate’s soul. Voters take back seat to big donors. Public loses. Wealthy special interests win. 

Our Democracy, Our AirwavesEveryone is quick to heap scorn on the politicians who prostitute themselves. And please don’t get me wrong; the candidates deserve a heap of scorn.

Other people get worked up over the moneyed interests and their lobbyists who are the johns in these transactions. The fact that they are not elected and have no public accountability should not spare them their share of the blame.

But hardly anyone focuses on the role played by the political madams – the media corporations that own all the television stations. Yet the evidence shows that the TV industry is profiting handsomely from these unseemly liaisons, but has been granted the political equivalent of immunity from prosecution.

In 2002, of the estimated $4 billion spent on all local, state and federal campaigns, at least $1 billion went to pay for broadcast television advertising. And that does not include the considerable cost of producing the ads, just of airing them.

A new national study shows that local television stations throughout the nation jacked up the prices of candidate ads by an average of 53 percent in the two months before the 2002 election, exploiting a campaign-driven spike in demand.

The price hikes by television stations occurred despite a three-decades-old federal law that is supposed to prevent such pre-election profiteering.

The study analyzed the sale of more than 37,000 political ads on 39 local stations in 19 states. Two Wisconsin stations were included in the survey – Madison’s WISC and WMTV. WISC’s price increases in the final weeks of the 2002 campaign averaged 92 percent, while WMTV’s ad prices increased an average of 47 percent.

Another new study of election news on 122 local television stations, including three Milwaukee stations found that more than half of the top-rated news broadcasts aired in the seven weeks before Election Day in 2002 did not contain a single campaign story, and that the stories that did air primarily focused on campaign strategy and horse race coverage rather than issues.

The average campaign story was less than 90 seconds long. Less than a third of the stories included candidates speaking. When the candidates did speak, the average sound bite was 12 seconds long. While viewers watching top-rated local news programs had a less-than-even chance of seeing any campaign coverage at all, they had a better than 80 percent chance of seeing at least one paid political ad. About half of the broadcasts contained three or more political ads. The ratio of political ads to campaign news stories was nearly 4 to 1.

If the Federal Communications Commission’s June decision to let fewer and fewer corporations control what we read, see and hear was not reason enough, the shameless price gouging and shoddy political reporting documented in these new studies provide further evidence of why the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act that Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold are reintroducing is so sorely needed.

The bill is similar to one introduced in the 107th Congress requiring broadcasters to air more issue-centered or candidate-centered programming and providing candidates and political party national committees with free air time.

While most campaign finance reform proposals – including the first McCain-Feingold bill – seek to limit the supply of political money, the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act takes aim at the demand for political money. It would put the "free" back in free speech, allowing political candidates to communicate with voters without first having to put out the red light.

Liberating politicians from the demeaning money chase that defines modern campaigns will not sit well with the powerful broadcast industry. TV stations are using the airwaves for free and selling time on them for profits of up to 50 percent while the average Fortune 500 company has a profit margin of less than 7 percent. So expect the media monopolies to meet the latest McCain-Feingold proposal with a fierce lobbying blitzkrieg.

Like the battle against the FCC’s new rules allowing more media consolidation, the fight for the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act will come down to the willingness of citizens to reassert their sovereignty. The broadcast airwaves belong to us, but we have given the media corporations free use of them to earn windfall profits while bleeding our democracy dry.

The second McCain-Feingold bill will be nothing if not a test of our ability to take back what is rightfully ours – our airwaves and our democracy. In the process, we might succeed in getting a few politicians off the streets.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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