"By increasing the flow of political information, free air time can better inform the public about candidates and invite viewers to become more engaged in their government," said McCain, R-Ariz., calling the change "the logical next step following campaign finance reform."
The forum, sponsored by the New America Foundation, focused on proposed legislation by McCain and Sens. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., Robert Torricelli, D-Mass., and Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., that would provide federal matching funds for the purchase of broadcast time by political candidates, and would require broadcasters to air programming dedicated to elections.
The proposal would create a system that would allow candidates for federal office who raise a threshold amount of funding -- in order to demonstrate public support -- to receive vouchers that match this funding. The vouchers could be used to purchase radio and television advertising time, or could be traded to the candidate's party for other types of support and then used by other party candidates to buy advertising time.
Qualifying national parties would also receive block grants of vouchers for every two-year election cycle that could be used at the state, local, and federal election levels.
This system would be funded by a usage fee of no more than one percent of the gross annual revenue of all companies that hold licenses to the public broadcast spectrum. This would replace the current practice of licensing the broadcasting spectrum for no cost, which has been the federal standard since 1927.
The law would also require television and radio broadcasters to devote at least two hours per week in the weeks before to an election to candidate- and issue-centered programming such as political debates and interviews with candidates.
At least half of that would have to be during prime time, and none of it could air between midnight and 6 a.m., when few viewers are watching. This late-night hole is a favorite dumping ground for the public service announcements that broadcasters must show in order to meet current federal requirements that they serve the public interest in return for free use of the spectrum.
Critics have long said these types of changes are needed to offset the significant media advantage held by well-funded, major party candidates. Critics also believe that such a move can be mandated because broadcasters have benefited so profoundly from free spectrum licensing 75 years.
In his speech, McCain cited estimates that the free broadcast spectrum used by television and radio companies would be worth $367 billion on the open market for wireless communications use.
Critics also believe that broadcasters have failed to properly serve the public interest. McCain pointed out that an estimated 77 percent of American television companies that were loaned $70 billion worth of spectrum in 1996 to be used for the broadcast of high definition television signals failed to meet the May 1, 2002 deadline to activate their digital signals.
McCain's effort is backed by a coalition of more than 50 national groups including the AARP, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, Public Citizen, and the Sierra Club.
But the proposed reforms face rigorous opposition from the powerful broadcast lobby and the National Association of Broadcasters, a group that McCain famously quipped was the toughest adversary he ever faced, surpassing even his North Vietnamese captors when he was a prisoner of war.
Robert Corn-Revere, a lawyer specializing in broadcast law at the firm Hogan and Hartson, said he believes the proposed reforms would not stand up on First Amendment grounds.
"This proposal, although it has been described as a modest proposal, would stand very little chance of being upheld (by the courts)," said Revere during a panel discussion following McCain's speech.
But Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, echoed McCain's criticisms of broadcasters' failure to deliver information in the public interest. His policy paper, "The Case for Free Air Time: A Broadcast Spectrum Fee for Campaign Finance Reform," co-authored with Paul Taylor, president of the advocacy group the Alliance for Better Campaigns, was recently published by the New America Foundation.
"This is how we carried forward with this public asset for 75 years, and this model is absolutely bankrupt," said Ornstein. "There ought to be a new model based upon market principles."
Taylor said that although political advertisements are not the best forum for political discourse, they are an ingrained part of the election process. He also believes this his law would grant modestly-funded or less well-known candidates a ticket into the political process. In most political races in the United States, the winner outspends and out-fundraises his opponent by three to one, and wins by 40 percentage points, he said.
"Money is a barrier to the political process," said Taylor.
Taylor says that academic research in this area shows that -- using the example of the typical $1 million House race -- once a candidate raises $300,000 to $400,000, he has a foothold and the money needed to get their message out. By matching contributions and requiring broadcast coverage, Taylor believes these reforms can enable more candidates to reach that fundraising threshold, so they can get their message out.
Despite McCain's support, these ideas have their share of critics in the think tank community.
Adam Thierer, director of Telecommunication Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he believes the proposals are another "thinly veiled attempt" to finance campaigns not only with public funds, but also corporate money.
Thierer questioned whether it was fair to roll the election costs onto broadcasters simply because they are using public airways. He pointed out that we don't require commercial airlines to provide free transportation even though they use public airports.
Thierer also believes there are hidden costs -- such as the shifting of costs to consumers -- that are not accounted for in the proposal.
Taylor countered that his basic calculations showed a cost shift to consumers of only about $1.15 per year as a result of enacting the law.
In the end, Thierer argued that such changes would do little to improve political discourse or increase the chances that candidates outside the two major political parties would gain greater television or radio exposure.
The legislative prospects for these proposed reforms are uncertain, and may not be very bright. Henry Geller, a communications fellow with the Markle Foundation who was general counsel at the Federal Communications Commission in the late 1960s, was in the audience. Geller is credited as being one of the original advocates for instituting a spectrum rental fee to replace the free giveaway of public broadcast spectrum.
In response to an exchange among the panelists on the likelihood of instituting such a fee, Geller, sighed and responded: "I should live so long."