Advocate for free air time hopeful despite FCC retreat

Monday, April 20, 1998

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission backed away from it. The National Association of Broadcasters, one of the strongest lobbying powers in Washington, D.C., is steadfastly against it. Congress won't debate it.

But Paul Taylor, founder of the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, remains optimistic that free air time — that is, radio and TV spots given to political candidates at no charge — is a strong, vibrant concept.

And this is true, Taylor says, even in the digital age as more and more people turn to the Internet for information and interaction.

“Whatever this new world looks like — and I know as little about what it will look like as anyone — there will be someplace for the McDonalds, the Fords and all the others who want to advertise on it,” Taylor said. “And that's where the candidates want to be.”

For now, the place to be is television, he says. Anyone who disagrees has only to look at California, where a heated gubernatorial race has already generated several million dollars for television ads alone.

But when Taylor suggests that free air time be federally mandated, opposition rears its head.

Broadcasters claim that U.S. courts consistently rule that government should not make content demands on the industry, despite the limited broadcast spectrum. There are plenty of venues apart from broadcasting in which the public and the candidates may air their views, they say.

But Taylor says the government and courts also deem broadcasters to be “trustees” of the broadcast spectrum and thus to have responsibilities for promoting the public interest.

“They'll say, 'We get it for free because we're public trustees,'” Taylor said. “But when the argument turns around, as in the case with free air time, they bring up the First Amendment.

“But it's the public's First Amendment right — not the broadcasters' — that is paramount,” Taylor says.

Despite the constitutional issues, broadcasters say a federal mandate for free air time is unnecessary.

Just this month, six Washington Post-Newsweek stations, which include two affiliates each from ABC, NBC and CBS, announced they will offer free air time to qualified gubernatorial and congressional candidates during the November elections.

The forum, “Campaign '98: Straight Talk From the Candidates,” will consist of five-minute segments assembled into a long-form, commercial-free telecast.

In January, PBS announced plans to offer free air time for the presidential elections in 2000, although it hasn't determined exactly how to do it.

This voluntary movement toward free air time is a trend, not an exception, says John Earnhardt, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

According to an NAB report released this month, nearly half of the group's 10,000 members offered free air time in the form of forums or debates. The report estimates that during the 1996 elections television and radio stations and the networks contributed $148.4 million in free air time to political candidates and convention coverage. The report also says candidates turned down more than $15 million in free air time that same year.

“Many candidates turn down these shows because they are incumbents who don't want to be seen on the same stage or same platform as their opponents, especially if they are ahead in the polls,” Earnhardt said.

But Taylor said such programs often are shoved onto public access channels or air late at night. Even when the programs air in prime time, they are dull and uninformative.

“It's 'eat-your-peas TV,'” Taylor said. “Viewers say, 'Here's a candidate talking to me. I'm not listening to this.”

Taylor said the programming needs to be at a time when people are watching and in a format that encourages them to watch.

Over the past year, the free air time issue has faced ups and downs.

A mandate for free air time appeared in the original McCain-Feingold bill — the Senate bill that sought a ban to soft money donations and stricter campaign requirements. But sponsors John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., decided to pare the bill because getting the soft money ban on the table was difficult enough.

President Clinton gave the issue a boost in January when he praised the concept of free air time in his State of the Union address. The FCC followed with an announcement it would explore the issue.

“This threat that the FCC would get serious about this triggered a firestorm of negative reaction on the Hill,” Taylor says. “Incumbents don't like free air time. They don't think about the time they'll get, but about the time their opponents will get.”

But FCC Chairman William Kennard backed away after lawmakers, especially McCain, clamored that mandating free air time lies within Congress' jurisdiction, not the FCC's. Although an FCC inquiry continues, Kennard said it would be more of a fact-finding and record-building venture than a rule-making one.

At the same time, a commission assembled by Vice President Al Gore is studying the issue and has an October deadline to report on what public-interest obligations should be in the digital era.

With the FCC backing down, few see the issue ever clearing Congress, mainly because sitting members don't want to give challengers a leg up.

Earnhardt agrees that the issue likely won't make it through Congress, “but if it did, that would be up for constitutional scrutiny under the First Amendment.

“If broadcasters can be a part of the solution, great. But we're not the only solution,” he says.