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Analysis: Politics as profit center

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 18 (UPI) -- One new study shows that broadcasters are enjoying increasing revenue from political ads, while another finds that TV stations are reluctant to televise candidate debates.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Nielsen Monitor-Plus found that automotive ads and political ads led the way as overall ad spending rose 6.4 percent during the first half of 2004. Nielsen analysts noted that viewers saw 356,000 ads for the presidential campaign during the first half of the year -- including ads from interest groups such as MoveOn.org.

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President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., have concentrated their presidential campaign ad buys in local news, network morning shows and such syndicated hits as "Jeopardy," "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Wheel of Fortune."

At the same time, the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate has released a study of 10 states that shows local TV stations televised a relatively small number of debates in 2002 in gubernatorial and congressional elections.

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The study examined TV coverage in California, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington state. Committee director Curtis Gans told United Press International that paid political ads have become the public's main source of information about candidates and issues -- as broadcasters have used the proliferation of new delivery systems to rationalize cutting back on political coverage.

"It's accelerated over the last 10 years," said Gans. "The rise of cable and satellite has given over-the-air broadcasters an excuse to slough off their responsibilities ... and pursue maximum profit."

According to Gans's study, 30 out of 50 gubernatorial debates were televised in the 10 states -- but that number includes 19 debates in Minnesota, where three candidates were running to succeed the outgoing governor, Jesse Ventura. Eight of 17 U.S. Senate debates were broadcast, and 36 of 107 debates involving House candidates were televised.

The study found that some stations broadcast more debates than others.

WFTV, an ABC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., broadcast five debates. WHDH-Boston broadcast three debates. Twin Cities Public Television, a PBS affiliate in St. Paul, Minn., broadcast five debates.

Bob Priddy, chairman of the board of the Radio and Television News Directors Association, told the Los Angeles Times he would like more research on the subject, but he said logistics and news judgment work against televising all the debates.

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"If candidates hold three or four debates, then logistically it can cause problems," said Priddy -- who is also director of Missourinet, a statewide commercial radio network based in Jefferson City, Mo. "We have to ask, 'Is news being generated?' Stations may cover a debate but not televise it."

Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, told UPI he thinks broadcasters do a good job of bringing viewers enough information on candidates and issues.

"Is there anybody in America who wants to know, who doesn't know where Bush and Kerry stand on the issues?" asked Wharton. "If (people) simply don't want to watch, there's not a whole lot we can do about people who aren't interested."

Gans's study focused more on "down ballot" races, and he said that's where voters particularly need broadcasters to deliver more information.

"On television, the prime source of information for the largest segment of Americans, these races do not receive adequate coverage," he said.

Gans's committee released a similar study two years ago but apologized subsequently after the NAB pointed out flaws in its methodology. According to a report in Broadcasting & Cable, Gans said the new study was thoroughly checked for those kinds of problems.

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"It wasn't terribly off last time," he said, "but it was enough not to want to do it again."

Gans also told Broadcasting & Cable that some of the observations NAB made about the 2002 study were inaccurate.

Gans said it isn't likely that broadcasters will air more hours of candidate debates during the 2004 election cycle. He said the federal government should consider re-regulating the broadcast industry.

"It's not going to happen in the political climate before Nov. 2," he said, "but it could conceivably happen after that. It won't happen with Michael Powell as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission or with conservative Republicans running the committees in (the) House and Senate."

However, campaign watchdog Charles Lewis wrote earlier this year in "The Buying of the President 2004" that broadcasters spend millions of dollars to resist free airtime while at the same time failing to provide much news coverage of the issue. Lewis, who is the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, said that leaves the public largely in the dark about political matters.

Lewis told UPI at the time that current and former politicians have decided not to take on the broadcasting lobby -- widely regarded as one of the most powerful in Washington.

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"Any politician that runs a crusade about the airwaves," he said, "they'll never be heard from again."

Gans said increasing the amount of broadcast time devoted to public affairs is a matter of political will.

"If there's a political will there's a way," he said.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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