Fresh Air Time

Breaking the big-money chokehold on political TV ads



Montana’s Constitutional Initiative 81, an effort now underway to ban legalized gambling throughout the state, hasn’t even garnered the 39,724 signatures necessary to put it on the November ballot, but that hasn’t stanched the flow of big money into the political war chests—$553,000 at last count in opposition to the measure, as opposed to just $6,400 in favor of it.

Similarly, the pharmaceutical industry has thrown more than $23,000 into television advertising attacking the efforts of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Brian Schweitzer for his stance on the high cost of prescription medications in the United States.

Likewise, with more than five months remaining before Election Day, nearly $600,000 in television broadcast expenditures have already been reported to the Montana commissioner for political practices—and that’s just in the governor’s race alone.

By anyone’s accounting, there is no shortage of examples of how big money influences federal, state and local elections, and at the current pace those expenditures will reach unprecedented levels this year. But an initiative known as the Montana Alliance for Better Campaigns (MTABC) is looking to break the chokehold of big money on elections by challenging Montana television broadcasters to voluntarily open their airwaves—for free—for at least five minutes of candidate-focused forums and debates each night for 30 days leading up to the general election and future primaries.

The goal, says Sara Busey, president of the Montana League of Women Voters and coordinator of MTABC, is to move beyond the 30-second sound bites and negative political ads, and provide voters with more in-depth and substantive coverage about where candidates stand on the issues.

“Our problem is that 85 million Americans don’t have cable. What they do have is network TV. Television has become our American public forum,” says Busey. “The other issue is not just how money can change what a person hears, but whether or not the information a person gets is complete.”

The Montana Alliance for Better Campaigns is part of a larger campaign underway in 20 other states, whose standards have already been adopted by at least 25 TV network affiliates. Chaired by such heavyweights as former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and former TV news anchor Walter Cronkite, the Alliance for Better Campaigns was born out of recommendations made by a White House advisory committee formed after the passage of the 1997 Telecommunication Act, which granted broadcasters additional bandwidth to accommodate the new so-called HDTV technologies. Part of all FCC licensing agreements require that broadcasters air a certain amount of public interest and public service broadcasting—which they do, to the tune of more than $18 billion annually nationwide.

That said, when the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California analyzed political issue coverage for 30 nights leading up to this year’s primaries, it found that most local TV stations aired a nightly average of less than one minute of candidate-related discourse.

The problem becomes more acute when money flows from out-of-state sources into citizen initiatives and statewide political campaigns for national office, says Bonnie Gee, technical director of MTABC. Gee says that special interest groups at the national level will often try to head off a candidate or statewide initiative, even before the voters have an understanding of what the issues are all about.

“That’s a problem for Montana citizens being able to control their own destiny,” says Gee. “In Montana, where there’s less than a million people, this is a place where outside money can have a major effect.

“What we’re speaking about here is not which side is right, but from a public perspective, which side gets heard,” says Gee. She notes that issue ads on television are the most expensive form of political advertising, costing in Missoula between $70 and $400 a pop for a 30-second ad, depending upon the station and time of day. According to Busey, MTABC reviewed the public records of just two Montana network affiliates and found that they have already gained nearly $400,000 from political advertising this year.

Needless to say, not everyone supports the idea. Although the Montana Broadcasters Association has yet to publicly endorse or oppose the measure, some broadcasters in other states have opposed it, fearing the loss of political ad revenues.

But Busey says that such fears are unfounded, noting that a 1996 study showed that similar coverage by newscasters did not result in a drop in their political advertising revenues, since candidates will still opt to deliver their message in their own style and format.

“We really think that Montana broadcasters will want to do this kind of thing,” says Gee. “During the election season, this is the hottest news there is.”

Busey adds that the other group that has traditionally opposed the idea is political incumbents, who generally do not want to surrender the advantage of name recognition they have over their opponents. In fact, she says, Congress has voted 163 times against mandating free air time for all candidates.

Missoula’s KECI-TV News Director Jim Harmon says he had not heard of MTABC, but says his station gave 10 half-hour slots to the major statewide candidates for two weeks leading up to the primary. He adds that his station is also planning to do extensive campaign coverage in excess of the five minutes per evening MTABC is asking for.

As of press time, a spokesperson for KPAX-TV could not be reached for comment.

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