Selling Us Our Own Air

Commentary by John McManus

Can you make sense of this?

The most serious problem in politics today--chad excepted--is the corrupting influence of campaign contributions, right?

And those who would represent us or advocate for a ballot initiative need to raise ever larger sums because air time, particularly on TV, is very expensive. (TV is the preferred means of transmitting a political message for all but the smallest and most local elections.)

But aren’t the stations collecting those vast sums--from $600 million to $1 billion this year, according to the New York Times--selling access to airwaves that really belong to us, not their shareholders?

And aren’t these stations given free and exclusive use of these airwaves on the sole condition that they use them for the public’s benefit?

How can stations licensed to serve the public justify jeopardizing the integrity of elections to sell us something we already own?

I tried to pose this question to the folks in charge of the Bay Area’s biggest stations, Kevin O’Brien at KTVU, “Dino” Dinovitz at KRON, Joe Ahern at KGO, Frank Oxarart at KCBS radio and Jerry Eaton at KPIX. Only Mr. Eaton responded.

“We sell all our ads at market rates,” he said. “That’s the system.” Only candidates for federal office (as opposed to state or local) are eligible for the discounted rate stations give their most preferred commercial clients.

The market always favors sellers at election time. Candidates and advocates for ballot issues are bidding with the usual business advertisers for a limited “inventory” of commercial “spots”¾30 second ads.

Everybody pays more, political interests and commercial parties alike, said a San Jose media buyer who requested anonymity. It’s supply and demand.

“This year, Channel Two went nuts,” said a San Francisco buyer who also declined to speak for attribution. “Channel Two had a 10 O’Clock News spot that normally sells for $7,000. It sold for $10,000. Radio was getting so much money from dot-com’ers it was incredible. They raised their rates unmercifully. KCBS was the worst offender, $3,000 they wanted for a morning drive spot that three years ago you got for $300.

Leo McElroy, a Sacramento media buyer, said political advertisers try to place their ads during local newscasts because news viewers are more likely to vote than entertainment viewers. He listed charges for a single 30-second spot:  $10,000 on Channel 2’s top-rated 10’O’Clock News; $8,000 for Channel 4’s 11 p.m. newscast; $4,000 for Channel 7’s late news and $3,500 for Channel 5’s late news.

Is it acceptable for broadcasters to sell political air time for whatever the market will bear?

Ironically, while broadcasters are staunch supporters of market pricing when they are selling air time, they have lobbied hard and successfully against paying the government the market value for their channels. While other businesses pay hundreds of millions to the U.S. Treasury to rent frequencies for cell phones and other devices, broadcasters have won exemptions for channels estimated to be worth over $70 billion if sold on the open market.

They shouldn’t have to pay¾or even rent¾their trade organization, the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) argues. Market pricing wouldn’t be appropriate because they use the airwaves to provide a public service.

But is profiteering from elections really a public service?

It’s a public service similar to that provided by a grocer who jacks up the price of bread, milk and batteries when a natural disaster causes an imbalance of supply and demand. (But at least retailers are selling something they own!)

You can punish the unscrupulous business when normal times return. But not the broadcaster. You’ll have to buy from that station again during the next election cycle. (That’s why the buyers won’t talk for the record.) The licensing process keeps out competitors.

If it seems that broadcasters are playing both sides of the market against the public--integrity of elections be damned--don’t bother writing them to complain. They’re not likely to respond to you either.

Instead, write your representative in Congress. And send a campaign check. The NAB is one of the freest-spending lobbies in Washington.

You also might consider doing something in concert with others. These websites can put you in touch: The California Voter Foundation, The Center for Responsible Politics, Common Cause, Follow the Money, The Center for Media Education.

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What do you think?