Article 25

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

Too Many Ads? Make them Free

In Uncategorized on 04/12/2013 at 2:05 pm



Illustration by Christopher D. Gajus

Reducing the influence of money in politics

By Jeremy Flannery


When political campaigns compete, commercial broadcasting companies are the victors.

Candidates must pay these private companies, licensed to use the public airwaves, for advertising space. This causes campaigns to seek financial supporters who can donate enormous sums of money, expecting, in exchange, policies that favor their interests.

But the influence of money in politics can be reduced so that public officials do not need to pander to special interest groups in order to afford advertising space on public airwaves.

The solution is to make political ads on TV and radio free of charge. Limiting their number would also force candidates to campaign in ways that provoke more public dialogue.

Candidates campaigning for public office must appeal to the public. Though television is facing competition from the Internet and social media networks, it continues to be a primary medium Americans use to obtain news.

“Television remains the most widely used source for national and international news,” the Pew Research Center says. “Sixty-six percent of Americans say it is their main source of news.”

While average constituents can contact public officials to express their views through letters, phone calls and e-mails and by staging demonstrations, the average constituent does not wield the same financial force that industries such as insurance companies and electricity suppliers have at their disposal.

One a day

The biggest campaign donors have greater influence over public officials than the average constituent because public officials often seek reelection or election to a different office. Refusing to meet the demands of major donors might result in their supporting other candidates.

If politicians are constantly worried about raising enough money for TV and radio advertisements, they likely are more concerned with donors’ demands than with what constituents say in letters or phone calls.

Broadcasting companies rake in the funds that donors give campaigns, whose messages are projected onto TV screens and transmitted over radio stations for voters. That act is not a public service, but a private enterprise.

Broadcasting companies generate profit by selling advertisements, including political ads. The public has the authority to regulate the use of public airwaves through the Federal Communications Commission – and already does. Under the commission’s “program content regulations,” broadcasting companies must charge the lowest rate for political advertising.

The public has the opportunity to reduce the influence that money has upon politics. A new FCC regulation could require broadcasting companies to provide free, equal, limited airtime to political campaigns and PACs.

Candidates and PACs could be granted one free, one-minute segment per day for 180 days before an election. All commercial broadcasting stations would be required to provide the free airtime.

Only candidates certified to the ballot would be eligible. PACS would be eligible only if they obtained the number of valid signatures equal to those required for candidates.

To further prevent abuse, eligible PACs would have to register an established residence, limited to one, in each state where the free ads are broadcast.

Next, the FCC regulation would forbid broadcasting companies from obtaining any form of payment for advertisements that are political in nature, which would be defined as “an advertisement that seeks to appeal to public opinion about public policy, public officials or political candidates and their campaigns.”

Broadcasting companies could provide more free airtime to candidates and PACs, but only if it is equally provided to all other candidates and PACs. A broadcasting company that fails to meet these requirements would lose its license for a period of four years before being eligible to reapply.

Make them talk to us

FCC regulation is necessary because the airwaves are limited by the nature of physics. Government has a compelling state interest to limit their use, or broadcasters could override each other in a constant, chaotic manner. Use of the public airwaves resides primarily in the hands of private companies. The new FCC regulation would remove a fraction of airtime from broadcasting companies and give it to the public for a public good.

The direct beneficiaries of the proposed regulation would be political campaigns and PACS, because they would need only to collect signatures to be eligible for free airtime. This would allow campaigns to spend their funds elsewhere, such as purchasing ad space in newspapers or on park benches, or through hiring campaign workers to call voters. It would also mean candidates would not need to raise as much money, reducing the need to negotiate public policy in exchange for donations.

But average constituents would benefit as well. If political candidates and PACs must seek signatures to receive free airtime, then those candidates, their campaign workers and members of PACs would often come into contact with voters. This would allow voters to directly express their views to the people seeking to guide public policy.

Commercial broadcasting companies would argue that this FCC regulation would place an unbalanced burden upon them. They enjoy an influx of revenue once an election cycle begins. While they must charge political campaigns the lowest advertising rates, some companies, such as CBS Corp., boasted lucrative sales to campaigns and PACs for the 2012 elections, according to a Feb. 14 report by The Wall Street Journal: “CBS Corp.’s (CBS, CBSA) fourth-quarter profit grew 6.2 percent as the media firm saw political and network advertising sales grow.”

Local television stations have received about 80 percent of total spending on TV ads for political advertisements, and spending on local stations doubled from $1.5 billion in 2008 to $2.9 billion in 2012, according to an analysis by Jack Poor of the marketing company Television Bureau of Advertising. Poor’s analysis suggests that political advertisement expenditures will continue to be enormous, if not increasing at a similar rate, for the 2014 and 2016 elections.

The proposed FCC regulation would eliminate political advertising revenue for broadcasting companies, while the companies would still incur the expenses of broadcasting the free ads.

Broadcasting companies would, of course, compensate by selling more ads to private businesses.

Giving money to political candidates and PACs is a form of expression, considered protected speech under the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United versus Federal Elections Commission. The public does not have the right to limit campaign donations, according to the ruling. But the public does have the power to regulate who profits from political campaign expenditures for public airwaves.

By making that portion of airtime a public service for political discourse, instead of a profit source for broadcasting companies, the influence of money in politics would be reduced and the public airwaves become an arena where each member of the public has an equal opportunity to participate.

The new FCC regulation would give candidates and PACs the opportunity to appeal to voters through public airwaves by obtaining signatures from constituents. Free airtime for political candidates and PACs would reduce the influence special interest groups have on public officials through campaign donations. And the regulation creates an incentive for political campaigns to use other means to appeal to the public.

Money will continue to have a strong voice in politics, but we can lower its volume.